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My top 3 achievements, and my top 3 on my wish-list

Dar Khalifa, CasablancaMany thanks to those of you were able to attend my Reddit AMA live. For those who were unable to attend, I’ll be sharing a selection of questions and answers over the next couple of weeks. To view the entire AMA, please click the above link. 

Q. What are your top three achieved aspirations, and what three sit at the top of your list to do before your swan song?

I am pleased to have:

  1. Lived a decade in a Jinn-infested home in a Moroccan shantytown.
  2. Been able to write books I want to write (a rarity).
  3. Watched the sun rise at Machu Picchu

And, on my wish-list:

  1. Go into the vast Chinese cave system at TIAN XING.
  2. Cross Africa East to West.
  3. Spend a month living on an Indian pavement.

Semester at Sea: An Afternoon In The Caliph's House

Dar Khalifa, CasablancaA few weeks ago The Semester at Sea ship came to Casa and I invited the students from Professor Natalie Bakopoulos’ Travel Writing class over.  They had already read The Caliph’s House in class, so they were familiar with the story behind Dar Khalifa.

They’ve posted a recap of the day on their own website, including photos of the students visiting with me. You can read more here.


Top 10 Strangest People I Have Interviewed

Queen of the KKK, dolls in Pulaski, Tennessee


  1. A dwarf dealer in Cairo.
  2. A Kali godman in West Bengal.
  3. The last storyteller, Damascus.
  4. The snake handlers in Appalachia, Tennessee.
  5. Toureg healer in Jma al Fna, Marrakech.
  6. An Aissawa exorcist in Meknes.
  7. Linda Block, on Alabama’s Death Row.
  8. The official hangman of Calcutta.
  9. The grave robbers at Paracas, on the Peruvian coast.
  10. Rachel Pendergraft, leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Pulaski, Tennessee.

Top 10 Favourite Travel Moments

Ramon of the Shuar, PeruThis is the first in a series of top ten lists. I hope you enjoy them!

  1. Reaching the top of the live Nyiragongo volcano in Congo.
  2. Crossing No Man’s Land between Sierra Leone and Liberia.
  3. Camping on the actual equator in Kenya.
  4. Taking Ayahuasca with the Shuar tribe in the Peruvian Amazon.
  5. Wandering the streets of Fès in the light of a full moon.
  6. Slipping under the locked iron door of a sealed pyramid in Egypt.
  7. Trekking through the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan.
  8. Crossing the Pampas in Argentina by train.
  9. Waking up on a hillside with yaks in Tibet.
  10. Being pulled up the cliff face of Debra Damo in Ethiopia.

Q&A on Writing and Travel

TS101. The explorations and adventures in most of your work are set in exotic places that are shrouded in mystery and rich in history and tradition, and it seems as though you have traveled just about everywhere. Do you happen to have any connection with a small and relatively mainstream place like Belgium?

When I was a child, I was sent to stay with friends at Ypres. I was eleven years old, and I remember the visit vividly. Of course I have returned to Belgium time and again since then, but it was that winter journey that is so burned in my memory. My sisters and I were taken to the Great War cemeteries there. I can see the headstones now – all lined up perfectly, glinting white in the flat winter sun. I remember reading the names and ages of those men. They were so young – their lives having hardly begun. A day doesn’t go by on which I don’t think of them. And it is for them that I remind my children daily: Carpe diem! Seize the day!

2. I recently heard you tell a student group that they could and should be explorers. As far as I know, there are no significant mysteries here in Belgium, though there is a great deal of history. What sorts of explorations do you think have yet to be pursued here? What do you think is the best way for parents to make explorers of their children?

Read more


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?

Read more


Worrying Times in the Shantytown

Shantytown surrounding Dar KhalifaThese are worrying times in the shantytown within which we live. Just as the big nasty apartment building mushroomed up without any warning in the bowels of the bidonville behind us, there’s been almost no official word about what’s going on with regard to breaking down the homes.

I’ve heard it said that the people who bought apartments in the expensive building behind paid the first slice of their cash on nothing more than an artist’s impression. The second tranche is payable now as I understand it, now that the concrete super-structure is complete.

The problem for the developers is that no one that’s paid a big chunk of cold hard cash is going to slide any more their way until they can drive in and have a look at the work done so far. And those people aren’t going to pay a single dirham more until there’s a nice plush road, as there is on the plans.

Meanwhile, the larger problem with many of the shacks is that they lie in the path of the road. I have heard it said, too, that 32 families were paid off last year. But they didn’t move… of course they didn’t, because in Morocco anyone with any cash is immediately cajoled into lending it to extended family and friends.

The first houses to have been knocked down were mostly bashed down with sledge hammers… the work of men from the building site. Needless to say, there are many glum looks and plenty of bad feeling. But, as anyone reading this can I am sure imagine, a handful of impoverished people in a shantytown have little hope when pitched against what is one of the Kingdom’s most powerful building contractors.

Two of our guardians live in the bidonville, and our maid. Thankfully, they live just out of the path of the road and so, hopefully, will be saved a little longer.

I’ve resisted taking pictures while walking through because this is a sensitive time. And the last thing I’d want if my house was being knocked down was people taking snaps of it all.


Boiled Frog

I was recently asked for an interview, ‘What are your thoughts on the way society is changing?’

My response:

We are urbanising at the same time as technologising. It’s happening everywhere at the same time.

Where I am living, in Casablanca, the city grows each day as more and more people come from the countryside and try to live here in the city. Of course, most of them can’t get jobs, and once they have seen the bright lights of the city, they can’t go back to their villages.

The world is changing, but most people aren’t seeing it happen. They’re not programmed to notice the change.

It’s very similar to the BOILED FROG idea:

If a frog is placed in a pot of cold water, water that is heated very slowly, the frog won’t notice the increasing temperature, and it will be boiled alive.

Our society is very similar to the boiled frog. We are going to be ‘boiled alive’ — as the world in which we live changes. We have been developed as a species for the savannah… to react to an instant threat, but not to a gradual one.

The only way to survive is to alter the way we notice change, and the way we react to it.



Morocco Lost in Translation

Last week a close Moroccan friend and I met for our weekly cup of tea at our usual café.

‘You know how much I like you foreigners,’ said my friend, ‘but you people confuse me, and other Moroccans as well.’

Smiling, I asked what he meant.

My friend went on to tell me of how he had been received at an American family’s home in Casablanca the week before. Following that visit, he invited the American family to his own home. A series of lost in translation moments had punctuated both visits.

As someone with one foot in the East and the other in the West, I could see the difficulties and, for this reason, I wanted to present a list of do’s and don’ts for Westerners living in Morocco.

Here it is:

When visiting a Moroccan home:

  • Take a gift, however small. Not to do so when arriving for a social visit is almost unthinkable. If there are children there, take something for them, or something straight-forward such a platter of pastries. Better to take more than less.
  • Don’t expect a tour of the house, or ask for one. Bedrooms and anything but the formal salon, will be probably off-limits, unless you know the family well.
  • Don’t be surprised if the television is left on all through the visit. TV is regarded as background noise in Morocco.
  • Don’t worry if people come in and out endlessly, while you feel awkwardly rooted to one formal chair. You’re a guest and, as a guest, you’re expected to be seated while everyone honours you. At prayer time members of the host family might slip out, pray, and then return.
  • And, as a respected guest, an abundance of food will be provided. Don’t gorge yourself on starters, as there will probably be large platters of cooked meat to follow.
  • The choicest pieces of meat may well be picked out and served to you. Don’t worry if you have to leave a little, because that’s fine in Morocco – just as eating every crumb is a sign that you are still hungry.
  • Do not help yourself to drinks, but wait for your hosts to serve you.
  • If eating from a communal dish of couscous or a tagine, keep to the triangle of the dish in front of you.
  • Don’t praise an individual object in the home too much, because it may well be presented to you as a gift.
  • Don’t take wine or an alcoholic drink unless you are very certain that the hosts drink.
  • Do make polite conversation, declaring how you adore Morocco, and Moroccan culture. Don’t launch into politics or religious matters.
  • Irrespective of whether you are the guest or the host, your children will be kissed by all. And, if it’s a conservative household, men either kiss each other’s cheeks (if already close friends), and women kiss women’s cheeks. Men shouldn’t kiss women and vice versa, unless you know the family well or if you know them to be less conservative. A handshake is always a good bet unless a cheek is offered.


When Receiving Moroccan Guests

  • On no account serve any dish containing pork or pork products.
  • Don’t necessarily ask your guests what they would like to drink. It’s better to just serve tea, or whatever, or to pour various cold drinks and present them on a tray. Don’t offer wine or beer unless you’re pretty sure your guests drink alcohol.
  • Never eat or drink anything until you are sure that your guests have all been taken care of. And never on any account help yourself to a second helping until all guests have taken what they need. If there’s a little food left at the end of the meal, never dive in and finish it if you are hosting the meal.
  • Remember that when receiving people in your home, they are traditionally guaranteed security beneath your roof. This means that you are obliged to treat them with respect, and so it’s not the right time to launch into severe arguments.
  • In Morocco, receiving a guest is regarded as an honour for the host, and so there should be an abundance of food. Don’t worry if you have many times what will be eaten, as you will be honoring your guests. Quantity, quantity, quantity.
  • Don’t offer a tour of your home, unless the guests are close friends. Moroccans are always confused about the idea of the house tour. It’s largely regarded as absurd.
  • Don’t stress if your guests sit in silence. In Morocco, as in much of the Arab world, silence is seen as a virtue and a medium through which people get to know each other.
  • Don’t be offended if your Moroccan friends don’t send a message of thanks. It’s not something required in the culture. But, you are likely to receive a return invitation instead.

Top 10 YouTube Videos

As you may have noticed, I’ve been much more active on YouTube in the past couple of months. I thought I’d share with you a list of the videos which have received the most views in the past three months. Some are new videos, and some were uploaded three years ago, when I first joined YouTube.

Do you have ideas for new videos? Please let me know in the comments what you’d like to see. Thanks!

  1. The Story of Timbuctoo
  2. Afghan Gold, Part 1 of 5
  3. Search for King Solomon’s Mines, Part 1 of 4
  4. Pakistani Torture Jail, Part 1 of 8
  5. Tahir Shah on Desi DNA
  6. Dar Khalifa: 5 minute tour of Tahir Shah’s home
  7. Tahir Shah’s Guide to Casablanca
  8. Tahir Shah is Interviewed by Ariane Shah
  9. Tahir Shah on Downtown Casablanca
  10. Tahir Shah on Publishing

Most of these videos have already been updated to include Spanish subtitles.