February 2007

Colleen Mondor


The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca by Tahir Shah

When I picked up writer Tahir Shah’s story of leaving England and resettling with his family in a rather broken down but once magnificent house in Casablanca, I fully expected The Caliph’s House to be a North African Year in Provence, just as the dust jacket suggested. To a certain extent it is that book -- a man finds himself at odds with the people in his town as he struggles to rebuild his new home and make it habitable for his family. There is chaos and frustration as workmen prove themselves to be lazy, ill-prepared and possibly even thieves. But Shah, although nearly driven crazy by the slow manner in which progress is made on his home (and the mistakes committed by the workmen), clings to his vision of returning the Caliph’s House to its former glory. Eventually, of course, he succeeds and his family finds many friends and true happiness in Casablanca. Just like Peter Mayle (and Frances Mayes in Tuscany, Carol Drinkwater in the South of France, etc.) except for one major difference. Shah also has to make a blood sacrifice to a jinn, something I’m sure Mr. Mayle would not be able to identify with at all.

Shah tells a story that anyone can understand. He and his pregnant wife and daughter live in a dreary English apartment where “the warring couple next door plagued us through paper-thin walls.” Since moving west from India he has found himself longing for what he once knew. He wants sunlight again and gardens and a fantasy world where “market stalls are a blaze of color, heaped with spices -- paprika and turmeric, cinnamon, cumin and fenugreek.” It’s not an easy decision to leave the security of Great Britain and no one seems very supportive of Shah’s decision to seek a new home in Morocco. “I have often wondered,” he writes, “how the pilgrims on the Mayflower ever managed to get away at all. Friends and family regard would-be escapees as crazed. Mine were no exception. At first they scoffed at my plan to move abroad, and when they realized I wasn’t interested in the usual bolt-holes -- southern France or Spain -- they weighed in with fighting talk. They branded me as irresponsible, unfit to be a parent, a dreamer destined to be a failure.”

Shah was not so easily swayed from his dream however and there was a very good reason why he wanted to move to Morocco. Although his father was an Afghan, Shah was raised in England and the family vacations were spent in Morocco -- the wars in Afghanistan prevented them from returning even for visits. He had many good memories of the country and its deeply rich culture. Also, his paternal grandfather spent the last years of his life in the country. Going to Morocco was part of a journey for Shah into his own family’s past and although he did not initially consider it the main impetus for his move there, it would ultimately prove to be a major part of why he stayed. (And also provide an excellent secondary narrative for the book as he tracked down his grandfather’s final home and the people who knew him.)

The main story – both funny and furious at the same time – is all about the Caliph’s House. When he sees it, Shah falls in love, and who could blame him? His description is breathtaking: “Stepping inside for the first time was like slipping into a dream. A maze of rooms stretched out. There were arched doorways with cedarwood doors, octagonal windows glazed with fragments of colored glass, mosaic friezes and stucco moldings, secluded courtyards, and so many rooms -- salons, studies, laundry room and kitchens, staff quarters, pantries and at least a dozen bedrooms.” The catch is that is has been empty for nearly a decade and is in a major state of disrepair. But Shah is in love and he has to save this “old society belle.” Three months after first laying eyes on it, “Dar Khalifa” is theirs and his family moves in. That, of course, is when the games begin.

As the house is located in a very poor and rundown section of Casablanca (a shanty town as Shah describes it), the neighborhood is a constant source of chaos. Dar Khalifa also came with three guardians who Shah must, as is custom, continue to employ and they all have their own issues to contend with -- not the least of which is their concrete belief that the house is basically being haunted by a jinn. The author also must find a secretary, or liaison, to help him deal with the many craftsmen, laborers and contractors necessary to return the house to not only a livable condition but to the former grandeur that he knows is still hiding in its depths. Nothing Shah tries comes easily however; one of his first secretaries apparently has a jinn who travels with her all the time and compels her to do a nasty thing or two.

As a reader I found myself getting frustrated with Shah every now and again and the many times he backed down to some really lazy or outright dishonest people in the name of keeping the peace or because that is the way it is in Morocco. I really couldn’t understand all of the problems with the jinn -- even Shah can’t completely wrap his head around it -- and I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t just throw everyone out of his household who continued to believe in it and issue silly edicts like you can’t use the bathroom at night because it would bother the jinn. (The man’s wife is pregnant, how easy do you think this one was for her?) I thought it was all a bit too much. Then I came across an article in a December 2006 issue of The Economist of all places about the influence of jinn on the Central Asian and African cultures. In “Born of Fire,” the correspondent doesn’t believe too much of this jinn business either, but the more he travels in Afghanistan and Somalia, the more he learns how real they are to the people who believe in them, and how that belief actually affects international politics. Consider this: 

The story of Ahmed Shah Masoud, the commander of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, clearly shows up the link between jinn and myth-making. Masoud resisted the Soviet Union and the Taliban from his base in the Panjshir valley until he was assassinated by al-Qaeda operatives on September 9th 2001. According to local legend, Muslim jinn were on his side. One of his fighters was said to have slain a dragon in a mountain lake during the Soviet occupation and to have brought the dragon's jewel to Masoud, with the help of Muslim jinn. In murdering Masoud, some Panjshiris say, Osama bin Laden declared war on Muslim jinn also. This is obvious, they say, from Mr bin Laden's insistence on division and violence.

As the correspondent explains, their history is deeply rooted in the same thing that most westerners do believe in. “The Bible holds that God created angels and then made man in his own image. The Koran states that Allah fashioned angels from light and then made jinn from smokeless fire. Man was formed later, out of clay. Jinn disappointed Allah, not least by climbing to the highest vaults of the sky and eavesdropping on the angels. Yet Allah did not annihilate them. No flood closed over their heads. Jinn were willed into existence, like man, to worship Allah and were preserved on earth for that purpose, living in a parallel world, set at such an angle that jinn can see men, but men cannot see jinn.”

When I was a little girl and acted in holiday plays at the Catholic Church my family belonged to, we were always told to be careful on the altar, and not harm the angels who were present there, watching over us. If Christians can have their angels, then it stands to reason that Muslims can have their jinn. And that means that Shah’s situation was really not so outside my own experience. I’m living in a house right now that my husband and I bought brand new two years ago and are still mad at our builders about. Nothing was done on time, they lied right to our faces, and they tried to cut corners all over the place. When you think about it like that, the Pacific Northwest and Casablanca aren’t all that different at all.

Ultimately Shah finds ways to make it all work out and just as Peter Mayle settled into his lovely home, so does the Shah family. Along the way he also finds out quite a bit about the house’s mysterious past and also about his grandfather. He endears himself to the reader and manages to make all the crazy people he lives with and near quite endearing as well. In the end The Caliph’s House gives the reader not only an intimate look at life in modern Casablanca it also reminds us, yet again, how very much alike we humans truly are. Admittedly, I fell slowly for this book, page by page, but Shah drew me deeply in and in the end I was sad to see my visit with him and his family ending. It’s a warmly written love story about a man and a house and everybody else who falls under its spell.

The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca by Tahir Shah
ISBN 0553803999
343 pages