The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca Paperback – Dec 26 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. When Shah, his pregnant wife and their small daughter move from England to Morocco, where he'd vacationed as a child, he enters a realm of "invisible spirits and their parallel world." Shah buys the Caliph's House, once a palatial compound, now heavy with algae, cobwebs and termites. Unoccupied for a decade, the place harbors a willful jinni (invisible spirit), who Shah, the rational Westerner, reluctantly grasps must be exorcised by traditional means. As Shah remodels the haunted house, he encounters a cast of entertaining, sometimes bizarre characters. Three retainers, whose lives are governed by the jinni, have attached themselves to the property. Confounding craftsmen plague but eventually beautify the house. Intriguing servants come and go, notably Zohra, whose imaginary friend, a 100-foot tall jinni, lives on her shoulder. A "gangster neighbor and his trophy wife" conspire to acquire the Caliph's House, and a countess remembers Shah's grandfather and his secrets. Passers-through offer eccentricity (Kenny, visiting 15 cities on five continents where Casablanca is playing; Pete, a convert to Islam, seeking "a world without America"). There is a thin, dark post-9/11 thread in Shah's elegantly woven tale. The dominant colors, however, are luminous. "[L]ife not filled with severe learning curves was no life at all," Shah observes. Trailing Shah through his is sheer delight. Illus. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Afghan writer Shah uproots his family from the comforts of London and moves to Casablanca. There he purchases not just any house but the abandoned residence of the caliph. Undeterred by suicide bombers, jinns, and innumerable job applicants, Shah installs his family in the decrepit house and begins to restore its walls, its gardens, and its fountains. Reconstructing the house immerses Shah in Moroccan everyday life. He has to deal with plagues of rats, swarms of bees, and the ever-threatening prospect of organized crime. Shah's picture of Moroccan society, its deeply held Islamic faith, its primitive superstition, and its raucous economy makes for endlessly fascinating reading. Particularly telling is his encounter with the realities of Ramadan, which seems to bring out both the best and worst in people's characters. Shah is cautious not to judge a society different from Western expectations, and he never makes fun of the odd characters who pepper his narrative. Shah's own heritage as both Afghan and Briton blesses him with a unique and penetrating point of view. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
The guy can flatout write and knows where to stop. He never drags a single thought out nor runs it into th ground. The man either has a great sense of editing or he just knows how to shift gears as seamlessly as an F-1 race car driver even within chapters.
Of course, it's a look inside the Moroccan, and subsequently the Islamic, world at a time in world history when Muslims are under the microscope. Definitely worth reading just to shatter the stereotype of the "Muslim as terrorist" jag that permeates much of the neocon narrow minded thinking on the subject.
That aside I would have liked a few "before, during and after" pictures of the house in question given the yearlong unintentionally hilarious construction site it became. Visual imaginary is fine but other than a glimpse via the book cover, how those wondrous tiles looked in their glorious full color would have been the icing on the cake that this fine book is.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This book is VERY funny. Tahir Shah is an Englshman of Afghani descent, so Morocco really is a culture shock for him. The odd and "backwards" aspects of trying to get things done in Morocco are amusing and educational. For instance, Shah ends up having to have the house exorcised for jinni (genies) and even having to take a second wife (it's not what you might think) to finish the project.
Looking at the other reader reviews below, it's clear that I'm not the only one with a high opinion of THE CALIPH'S HOUSE. Trust us!
Raised by an Afghan father on tribal legends and childhood treks through the Atlas Mountains, Shah is drawn by the sense of exotic beauty and deep-seated cultural values of Morocco, enough so that he purchases a run-down estate in a shantytown. The Caliph's House is filled with traces by bygone beauty: secret gardens in inner courtyards, mysterious locked rooms, and unlimited potential for restoration: the beautiful bejmat mosaics and fountains that Islamic art has been famous for for centuries, carved cedar shelves, grand doors.
Shah quickly realizes that despite its French appearance and legacy, Casablanca is purely North African, governed by age-old ritual and superstition: Jinns that rule his new home and cause accidents and deaths, workmen that never finish a single project, the constant headache of bargaining for every item needed for restoration, living next to seething slums where Arab Gulf Al-Qaeda members are recruiting in the local mosque.
The cast of characters is immensely entertaining, serving to outline the contrasts in modern Morocco: a French countess who was a friend of Shah's grandfather, a pessimistic French diplomat, an elderly stamp collector who trades stamps for stories, three guardians who come with the house but end up causing nothing but headaches, a local gangster and his trophy wife, and the servants that Shah hires to attempt to add rule and order back to his life, but who quickly teach him that to accomplish anything, he needs to think like a true Moroccan.
Unlike the myriad of home restoration shows on the BBC and HGTV, Shah's project is plagued by disaster from the beginning: a phony architect and his bungling workers knock down walls with glee, Shah's black market sand provider is jailed on prostitution charges, his mail-order furniture from India (ordered after several glasses of wine)and personal library of 10,000 books is held hostage by Moroccan customs, and the supposed haunting by Jinns is enough to nearly drive Shah and family from Dar Khalifa, but cooler heads and a new cultural awakening prevails. Shah learns to admire the wealth of cultural traditions that guide Morocco, reconnects with his famous grandfather, who spent the last years of his life in Casablanca, and finds the journey ultimately rewarding.
Full of sharp humour, eagle-eyed observations gleaned from a lifetime of travels, and an eye for beauty, "The Caliph's House" is a delightful, exotic journey into the cultural heart of Morocco, full of whispering fountains, lush secret gardens, the glitter of glazed tile mosaics, the muezzin's chant, and the call of the unknown.