Title: The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca
Author: Tahir Shah
Release Date: January 31, 2006
Genre: Non-Fiction, Travel, Memoir
Challenge: Fall Into Reading 2008
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
From the back cover:
In the tradition of A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun, acclaimed English travel writer Tahir Shah shares a highly entertaining account of making an exotic dream come true. By turns hilarious and harrowing, here is the story of his family’s move from the gray skies of London to the sun-drenched city of Casablanca, where Islamic tradition and African folklore converge–and nothing is as easy as it seems….
Inspired by the Moroccan vacations of his childhood, Tahir Shah dreamed of making a home in that astonishing country. At age thirty-six he got his chance. Investing what money he and his wife, Rachana, had, Tahir packed up his growing family and bought Dar Khalifa, a crumbling ruin of a mansion by the sea in Casablanca that once belonged to the city’s caliph, or spiritual leader.
With its lush grounds, cool, secluded courtyards, and relaxed pace, life at Dar Khalifa seems sure to fulfill Tahir’s fantasy–until he discovers that in many ways he is farther from home than he imagined. For in Morocco an empty house is thought to attract jinns, invisible spirits unique to the Islamic world. The ardent belief in their presence greatly hampers sleep and renovation plans, but that is just the beginning. From elaborate exorcism rituals involving sacrificial goats to dealing with gangster neighbors intent on stealing their property, the Shahs must cope with a new culture and all that comes with it.
Endlessly enthralling, The Caliph’s House charts a year in the life of one family who takes a tremendous gamble. As we follow Tahir on his travels throughout the kingdom, from Tangier to Marrakech to the Sahara, we discover a world of fierce contrasts that any true adventurer would be thrilled to call home.
I can’t remember where I first heard about The Caliph’s House, but I’m really glad I took the time to read it. The book is a real adventure; I couldn’t believe that the author and his family actually faced all of these challenges and triumphed. Lesser people would have cracked under the pressure and fled Casablanca, broken.
The depiction of life and culture in Morocco is at once hilarious and completely intriguing. I constantly was comparing Shah’s experiences to my own in the United States and shaking my head in disbelief. The cultures are so different; in a lot of ways, Moroccan culture reminded me of Indian culture. They are both very superstitious and honor family above all else. It’s always fun to learn about another culture, and it was especially enjoyable to do it through the eyes of a skeptic.
The Jinns really made the novel for me. At the beginning, I was frustrated by the Moroccan’s unswerving belief in the Jinns, as was the author. But as the novel progressed, I found myself warming to the concept. Who was I to say that there weren’t evil spirits inhabiting Dar Khalifa? Though I didn’t believe in them, that didn’t make them any less real to the Moroccans. It was one of those examples of exhibiting a cultural superiority mentality without realizing it; because I did not grow up believing in Jinns, I was quick to dismiss the idea. I appreciated how The Caliph’s House made me re-evaluate how I think about things.
I highly recommend The Caliph’s House, even if you don’t normally read non-fiction. The book is easy to read; Shah breaks up the tale enough to where there are plenty of stopping points. If you want to read this book alongside another (as I did), the style of the novel makes it very easy. It is entertaining, funny, and wonderful to read – I thoroughly enjoyed it and hope you will too.