Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Caliph's House by Tahir Shah

Is "silly English-speaking person moves to foreign land and is surprised by the unfamiliar" a nonfiction book genre? If so The Caliph's House by Tahir Shah is a SESPMTFLAISBTU.

Tahir Shah is of Scottish and Afghan descent. Tired of the cold winters and shallow society of the British Isles, wanting his children to grow up in the sun, he decides to move his family to an over three hundred year old villa in Casablanca. Since his own childhood when he visited his grandfather in Tangier, he has nurtured a dream of living in Morocco. After buying Caliph's House, he moves his family into the insect-infested old stone rooms, where he discovers that he has inherited three house guardians and an angry Jinn (evil spirit) named Qandisha.

The tale that Shah tells is at times very funny and always compelling. Readers will want to know what happens next with the remodelling of the house, the searching for building materials, the hiring of assistants, the bending of laws, and the meeting of other ex patriots. I also like the story about seeking out his grandfather's abode and friends.

I am a bit troubled by the story. How could Shah have not known the troubles he would face? Was he really expecting trouble knowing its account would make a good book? Is the book honest or is it the literary equivalent of reality TV?

I also wonder about how Moroccans react to the book? Shah expresses European views of the Muslim people that might offend the natives, but he also serves up a lot of self-criticism. Could a Moroccan read it rooting for the locals in the way conservatives in the U.S. used to root for Archie Bunker in All in the Family? It would be interesting to know.

Because of its oddities, The Caliph's House might make a good discussion book.

Shah, Tahir. The Caliph's House. New York: Bantam Books, 2006. ISBN 0553803999

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