The Caliph’s House (Morocco)

book coverby Tahir Shah

In this memoir, a foreigner moves from London to Morocco to get away from the digitized world. He hates packaged chicken curry sandwiches. He longs to live by the ocean (who doesn’t) in the sunlight and warmth. I have loved the Provence of Peter Mayle…the Tuscany of Frances Mayes…the Corfu of the Durrell family. But this book is different.

Tahir Shah is one-fourth Scottish and two-fourths Afghan; somewhere in his father’s family he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. His father used to drive the kids from England all the way to Afghanistan, looking for displays of “fantasia”–men riding horseback, shooting rifles in the air and whooping. Tahir Shah’s wife is from India. So I was intrigued by the family as much as the adventure. And what an adventure it is!

When the Shah family purchases Dar Kahlifa, the Caliph’s  House, in the middle of a shantytown in Casablanca, it is at once magnificent and run-down. There are secret rooms that are locked. There is a giant pool (I was ready to move in until the little girl starts throwing snails into it). There are courtyards and bedrooms and kitchens. There is a garden.

There are also Jinns. What?

The Jinns Move In. They Won’t Move Out

Shah hired local craftsmen to restore the house using traditional methods
Shah hired local craftsmen to restore the house using traditional methods

In addition to the house, Shah inherits 3 Moroccan men who live in the shantytown and have been taking care of the Caliph’s House for generations. They obstruct his every desire, saying that the Jinns will be angry. Almost every Moroccan he meets believe in the Jinns. Even some foreigners do. When a house is left empty as Dar Kahlifa has been, Jinns move in. It is their house now, and they don’t like the family to live there. The Shahs are told not to use the toilet in the night, not to build certain things or reconstruct others. They have to prepare gigantic feasts for the Jinns (Shah suspects they disappear into the bellies of the guardians but can’t prove it). The Jinns require presents and for a well to be dug. One of the guardians secretly puts raw meat in it for the Jinns and the whole Shah family ends up violently ill because of it.

interior courtyard with fountainThe remodeling of the house while fighting local superstition is the main theme of the book. Shah says that Casablanca itself seems a first-world, sophisticated city with glitzy restaurants, luxury hotels, and fast cars. But if you scratch the surface, you find the culture of old Morocco with all its superstitions alive and well. He says the whole of North Africa believes in Jinns and curses and witches and sorcery and blood sacrifice. Strangely, devout Muslims tell Shah that Jinns are in the Quran, so they too believe in them.

Shah longed for a library with cedar shelves from floor to ceiling. Unfortunately, cedar is FULL of Jinns…

Disturbingly, the Shahs keep finding dead cats, dead rats, and dead hedgehogs hanging from trees. The guardians say it is because the Jinns are angry. Tahir Shah thinks it is because someone wants to scare them into giving up the house. Possibly the local godfather and his gangster wife who live down the street. The guardians plead with Shah to hire a gang of sorcerers to perform an exorcism, which he finally does. The 25 men he hires under the auspices of the head sorcerer, who looks exactly like a pimp, laze around the Caliph’s House, demanding elaborate meals, smoking hashish, and getting drunk. When they finally perform the exorcism, they slaughter a ram in one of the main rooms and sprinkle the blood around, upsetting Shah’s 5 year old daughter no end.

I have to say, I took the girl’s side. She made friends with the goat immediately. It was the one point in the book when I wanted to punch Shah in the face for not putting his foot down. It was also out of character. Usually, when he saw chameleons for sale by the side of the road, and the boy selling them hanging them by their tails, he bought the entire stock and set them free. He yelled at kids poking donkeys with sticks. So I was very displeased by the goat sacrifice. (Although the sorcerers had originally demanded that he buy them rams to sacrifice in every single room. And he didn’t, thank God.)

That was my main UGH about Morocco–treatment of animals. Look, I understand that when you’re desperately poor, you can’t afford to be sentimental about animals. It still sucks. UGH.

The Afghan Connection

interior of house
I want to live here

What makes this travelogue different from the typical expat tale is that Tahir Shah is deeply connected to his adoptive country, having lived there as a child. He keeps comparing the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to the Hindu Kush of his native Afghanistan.

Shah’s Afghan grandpa was a sophisticated world traveler who became a Freemason in Scotland before WWI. He then lived in Tangier for 10 years. In Casablanca, Shah finds the special coffee shop his grandpa loved (they only serve Brazilian coffee) and asks the owner to bring out his grandfather, who knew Shah’s grandfather. The old man is delighted. Shah also befriends a French Countess who loved his grandpa, plus a fellow Mason  in Tangier for whom Shah’s grandpa did a secret good deed decades ago.

the pool

As you would expect, this book is really funny. The house renovation is a battle of wills between the rich foreigner and the wily locals, and you can guess who wins most of the time. There are cultural misunderstandings, but Shah is sincere and good-hearted, if somewhat bumbling. Which just adds to the fun.

I loved hearing about how fruit and veggie vendors in the medina treat the poor. Shah observed an old beggar woman going around the stalls, and how each vendor would carefully select the best peach or the best apple for her. He asked them why, noting that in the West we give only the bruised or day-old to people for free, and they told him that “just because a person is poor, should we give them low quality goods? No. We are not like that in Casablanca.” I love that. It seems a Christ-like or a Mohammed-like action.

the familyMy only criticism of the book is that Shah’s Indian wife Rachana is mostly absent from the narrative. The dialogue is written from an “I” perspective rather than a “we”. Oh, he mentions her a few times, but…I don’t know. she just wasn’t present. This struck me as odd. I wanted to know more about her experiences in Casablanca, and how her perspective as a woman and an Indian person would be different from that of her husband or the locals. I wanted to know about raising two kids in a country where you don’t speak the language (although the older child does pick up French and Arabic more quickly than her father).

Rating: Five bowls of couscous and apricots and lamb! Without the sacrificial lamb. LOL





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