Q&A on The Caliph's House

2012-07-26 10.48.43I am occasionally interviewed via email or invited to participate in a Q&A for a course that is reading one of my books. I thought I’d share this one with you, which discuses The Caliph’s House:

1. Why did you choose to express your feelings through imagery, rather than express them directly? 

That’s a good question and one I have never been asked before. I wrote The Caliph’s House not long after 9/11, and I had that atrocity in my mind all the way through. It was really important to me to try and show Morocco from the inside out, and in a way that American people especially could receive. I wanted to show the kingdom in ways that were not merely descriptive, but touched the senses, as well as reaching an audience through anecdotes. It was difficult to do, but I am always so happy when people write to me saying that the book changed the way they regarded Morocco — ie as not “just another” Arab country.

2. Did you realise that the Arabic meaning of the characters’ names in the book correlate to their personalities, or is this coincidental?

It’s largely coincidental. I must admit that I changed some of the names. I did this because I was fearful of intrusion if the book was a success. And, in the years after it was published, we received hundreds of people turning up out of the blue. The guardians are very important to me and I don’t like the thought of them being bothered for something I wrote.

3. How was your book received in Morocco?

I was extremely fortunate with the reviews. TIME Magazine rated it as one of the Top 10 Books of the Year, and almost all the other reviews — from the NY Times to the London Daily Telegraph — were very kind. I think people appreciated that I wasn’t trying to impress them and be a Morocco-know-it-all. I am not an expert on Morocco, but just someone who loves the Kingdom very very deeply. This country has been incredibly kind to us, and so I just hope my positive writing about it is a small way of giving something back.

4. Did you ever reach a stage where you wanted to leave Morocco?

I could never imagine not having Dar Khalifa. It’s so twinned with my soul that I can’t celebrate my love for it enough. Yes, sometimes I go crazy because something’s bothering me — but that’s usually a reflection of me rather than of Morocco. I’m the kind of person who’s usually got a hundred projects on the go, and I get irritated if things take longer to get done than I’d like. But that’s most probably a sign for me to slow down rather than for Morocco to speed up.

5. Are there any cultural contrasts that you still see today?

Yes… about two miles from Dar Khalifa there is on the ocean a magical little island called Sidi Abdur Rahman. It’s tiny — about the size of a couple of tennis courts — and it’s inhabited by ‘sehura‘, witches. People go to them for solutions to problems in their lives. It’s been there since long before Casablanca, and is known to everyone in the city. All was well until two years ago, when Africa’s biggest shopping mall opened about half a mile from it. It looms there, a futuristic eyesore next to this magical crucible of history and folklore. The island was always hard to reach, especially in high tide, as you had to wade across, or go over in a rubber ring. But when I passed this afternoon I saw — to my horror — that a huge stone bridge has been built right up to it. I stopped my car and asked someone selling ice cream on the beach. He told me that the witches are being cleared out now, and that the island will become a tourist attraction. I can’t hide my sadness.

6. Is all the information in the book anecdotal or did you adapt some of the stories/people to suit your audience?

I was careful how I crafted the book and told the story. I planned it in detail, as I usually do my books. And I did indeed shape material to make it fit nicely, but not nearly as much as I thought I would have to. I just kept copious notes and found that the stories told themselves. It’s a great feeling sitting at a laptop, writing a book that writes itself. It’s so much fun.

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