Tahir Shah, The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca ( Bantam Books, 2006)
As an apartment-dweller all of my adult life, I've often daydreamed about one day buying a house that's seen better days but with a bit of work could be a wondrous place to live and work and raise a family. Or, in a more humble vernacular, a "fixer-upper". In recent years, I've even become interested in learning how to do as much of the work myself as I can. But when I think of a fixer-upper, I think of a house that's maybe several decades old -- maybe even a hundred or so -- located somewhere near the city where I already live. Not so Tahir Shah, author of The Caliph's House. Shah was living in London with his wife and young daughter when he too felt the allure of the fixer-upper, so he went out and bought one: a centuries old former estate on the border of a slum in Casablanca.
So a writer from London moves his family to Morocco, basically on just a little more than a whim. Hilarity and highjinks ensue.
OK, perhaps "hilarity and highjinks" isn't the best way to describe it, but there is a good deal of human comedy in the book, with some pathos to go along with it. It all begins with Shah's wanderlust and general dissatisfaction with the modern society of London, where he has many acquaintance-friends but few lifelong-friends, and where he feels hemmed-in by the small walls of his city apartment. When the opportunity to buy Dar Khalifa -- the Caliph's House -- for a price he can actually afford almost literally drops into his lap, he completes the transaction almost immediately and packs up the family. One envisions a moment right out of The Simpsons: "The Shahs are going to MOROCCO!" "Yayyyyy!"
Dar Khalifa turns out to be a spacious estate with many rooms and gardens and fountains and a swimming pool, but whose walls and floors and ceilings are cracked and infested by mold and algae and whose environs are dominated by slums. These impediments are tough enough for Shah to deal with, as he proves surprisingly naive in dealing with the natives for an experienced travel writer who used to vacation in Morocco as a child. He hires an "architect" to oversee the renovation, and said "architect" dispatches a team of goons who knock down a whole bunch of walls and then disappear completely. Further attempts to deal with the "architect" result in cell-phone conversations interrupted by service dropouts of, shall we say, questionable timing.
Shah's problems don't end with merely with the difficulties of renovating such a large and dilapidated estate. Noting a string of bad luck affecting the house, the house "guardians" -- who appear to be a flock of people who somehow randomly accrue around Dar Khalifa -- inform Shah that the house is home to a number of Jinns who don't like what they see happening. Shah is told at various points that he should do things that are extremely counterintuitive because it would please the Jinns, and at other times he is warned away from what seems to a more jaded Western reader as the obvious course of action because it would anger the Jinns.
The book deals with far more than just the work of rebuilding an estate fallen on hard times, and the book is at its best when Shah is portraying the Moroccan culture into which he has immersed himself. Morocco, it turns out, is harder to fathom than one first thinks. True, it is an Islamic country, but it is several thousand miles distant from the Middle East, and is at the Straits of Gibraltar just miles away from Europe. It is the point from which the Moors crossed into Spain and then back again, and thus the Islamic cultural roots of Morocco and intermixed with Spanish and French roots as well. Casablanca, Shah tells us, is a city with a strongly European feel, but one that is distinctly non-European as well.
Along the way, Shah makes a number of friends, some of whom are more deserving of the word than others. There is "Pete", the American who has come to Morocco to search for the girl he met in America and became smitten with; there is the Countess who knew Shah's grandfather when he lived in Morocco; there is the destitute old stamp collector with whom Shah trades new stamps for conversations. And there is Kamal, hired as Shah's personal assistant, who has a fairly dark past (he once knew Mohammed Atta); who disappears for days at a time, sometimes explaining his absences and sometimes not; and who has that way of making things happen while warning Shah that perhaps he should inquire too closely as to the methods he uses to secure what is necessary.
The Caliph's House is an engaging read that left me wondering what happened in Shah's second year in Casablanca. There are moments that are laugh-out-loud funny, and there are moments that are gently moving, and there are moments that are downright disturbing in their implications. And it might just be a necessary read in an age when the prevailing impression of the Islamic world seems to involve terrorism. A pot of mint tea, we suspect, can heal a lot of differences.
(The book contains a number of black-and-white pencil illustrations, but no full-color photographs of Dar Khalifa. A number of such photos, however, are available on Shah's own website, including several wonderful shots of Moroccan tile mosaic in the act of creation.)