The Caliph’s House
From The Washington Post’s Book World
It’s been 20 years since Peter Mayle wrote his bestseller A Year in Provence, and there’s no sign yet of the “Year In…” franchise flagging. After all, what two-week vacationer could fail to dream of a year in Provence, Marrakesh or Tuscany? These are modern Mediterranean fairy tales, and they’re put together with the simplest ingredients: magical neighbors, hellish builders and much more olive oil than you expected. The Caliph’s House looks like one of those books, but it isn’t. British travel writer Tahir Shah’s highly readable account of moving his young family to Casablanca is constructed with something weirder and sharper: vinegar, perhaps, and ectoplasm.
It opens ordinarily enough. Shah is at a Casablanca lawyer’s office, signing the sale contract, taking in the view of the street, ruminating on why he had always wanted to skip the grey skies of England for the warmth and color of Morocco. He picks up the heavy old key. The caliph’s house is his. At that very moment, a car bomb explodes outside the lawyer’s office, covering them both with broken glass. An eerie portent of things to come, perhaps. Shah’s new home, the vast Caliph’s House, has been empty for 10 years and now stands decrepit, if not derelict, on the fringe of a shantytown. With it, Shah finds that he has also acquired staff: three lugubrious and potentially sinister “guardians,” who come “as if by some medieval right of sale.” More medieval still, a vengeful she-jinn called Qandisha haunts the house, they say.
Over the next few months she reveals her presence in various grisly ways: stringing cats up in trees and sucking raw meat through the toilet bowl. Children are said to be her favorite target. It may be no coincidence that the local gangster wants them out so he can steal the land. Down in the shantytown an elderly stamp-collector, who will take no money for teaching the author Arabic but likes his foreign stamps, gives him some amiable advice: “You put mannequins in the children’s beds, and tell your children to sleep in the oven each night. Do that, and you will all be safe.” An educated young lady Shah hires to get the renovations underway ultimately claims to have a 300-meter-tall jinn sitting at her shoulder, cleans out Shah’s bank account and reports him as a terrorist to the police. Her replacement – the crafty, efficient Kamal – is a binge-drinker on a perpetual high-wire, a sort of psychopathic Jeeves whose brutal and bizarre history includes a long interlude in the United States, where he made the acquaintance of Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 hijacker.
Yet nothing in Casablanca is quite as odd as Shah’s determination to carry on as usual. He and his imperturbable wife want servants, a big house in the sun and a bellyful of local color for their two toddlers. What they get is the local custom of dropping gobbets of raw chicken into the well to appease the jinns, and a bellyful of streptococcus. It’s almost fatal, but they don’t flush the key down the one working lavatory and get a cab to the airport. The thought briefly flits through Shah’s mind, but it doesn’t take hold. Instead, we are led on a darkly comic journey into the North African underworld, with the reckless but thoroughly well-connected Kamal as chaperone to Shah’s dubious Dante.
The joke is that Shah, in spite of his Afghan heritage, in spite of his descent from the Prophet, is a man with a rationalist moral gyroscope. He doesn’t believe in jinns, which everyone else seems to have like head lice. He’s bothered by rats, he has servant trouble, he discovers the desperate shifts the poor make to survive — the stealing, the sudden flashes of dignity, the mutual aid networks that underpin the black market, the medieval superstitions. Nothing works quite the way it works in a mature, liberal, democratic capitalist society. Everything has a price, but the routes to that price are devious and surprising. Every explanation raises more questions than it answers: Shah has baffling encounters and warily follows instructions he cannot understand.
One night he is taken to a mysterious rendezvous in the desert and expects to be killed, but nothing happens. Another day he gives a lift to an old man who steals his car. Fifteen minutes later, the elderly thief drives back, apologizing that if he took the car for good, no one would ever give an old man a lift again. It’s in this sly side-step from common reality that the Shah persona comes into its own. He doesn’t play it too knowingly, but he doesn’t play himself for a fool, either.
If Kamal is a Jeeves on amphetamines, Shah is no woolly-headed Wooster. He finds himself a very good fixer. He gets the house superbly done, with tiling and the tadelakt, so that he and his family can leave the single room they’ve occupied all year. And he finds out a lot about his grandfather, a widower who retired to Morocco because it was the one place he’d never traveled with his adored wife; he lived for years in Tangiers before being struck dead by a Coca-Cola delivery truck. Shah writes an outrageously black comedy with the straightest of poker faces. And in some quiet alchemical way, he finds himself at peace with the guardians and the imam and the gangster down the road and the shanty dwellers on his doorstep and the bank manager at home. He’s living there still.
Jason Goodwin is the author of “Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire.”
Reviewed by Jason Goodwin
Copyright The Washington Post
All Rights Reserved
Moving to Morocco and leaving our small London apartment behind was something about which I gave quite little thought. Now I look back, I reel with amazement at how I talked Rachana into the dream — my dream — and how I pushed the fantasy forward. Sometimes in life it’s best not to think too much. I rarely speculate, and find myself cringing while others dissect an idea, a dream. Speculate too much and the fragile idea dies before it has life. So we didn’t think too much, and I outlawed any speculation. We lived moment to moment, and day to day.
Renovating Dar Khalifa was something that at times drove me to almost madness, and at other times I wondered how it would ever end. I knew that if I could only get out of bed each morning and stand up, then I would have a fighting chance at getting through the day. Even when the days were bleaker than the darkest nightmare, I knew the secret was to blinker myself, to hide the perils around me, and to keep struggling towards the distant horizon.
THE CALIPH’S HOUSE, my book on the ordeal, was born from the struggle. It rolled out of my fingertips very fast. Writing it somehow purged the memory, and helped me in a kind of primitive therapy. I wrote the book here at Dar Khalifa, whereas normally I tend to make a journey and write about it somewhere else. That helped me, to be here, writing. I could feel a sense of consciousness in the walls of The Caliph’s House. It’s something I feel sitting here now. I don’t quite understand it, but I have learned to appreciate it, to love it.
The greatest moment for me was when the first copy of THE CALIPH’S HOUSE arrived across the threshold. I felt as if we had made it, as if in some way we were complete. I don’t like it when authors rant on about their publishers, dousing them in praise. I don’t really even like writing acknowledgements in my books. I don’t know why, perhaps because I think they take the reader’s eye off the tale. But my publisher at Bantam Dell in New York, Philip Rappaport, was an extraordinary force behind this book. He believed in it, and because he did as strongly as he did, it helped me to believe as well.
I think that a good story comes out of a struggle. It has to be earned, lived, experienced. That’s why THE CALIPH’S HOUSE is special for me. It was crafted out of hardship and dire uncertainty… and as far as I am concerned, a story written from the heart takes on a life of its own.
Another reason I am so pleased that THE CALIPH’S HOUSE is thriving, is that it is drawing people here to Morocco. I feel fortunate to be living in this Kingdom, one of the most magical lands on Earth. And, nothing brings a faster smile to my face than when someone drops me an email saying that THE CALIPH’S HOUSE encouraged them to come to Morocco and to follow a dream of their own.