Monday, September 5, 2011

The Caliph's House by Tahir Shah

Rating: 3 & ½ Stars
“…a life not filled with severe learning curves was no life at all.”
Reading ‘The Caliph’s House’ would give one the impression that it’s easier to take the boy out of the East, than take the East out of the boy. Though the writer is of Afghan origin, his family for the past two generations, seem to have lived mostly in the West. Shah has sentimental reasons for wanting to move to Morocco – he’s inspired by the example of his distinguished diplomat grandfather who spent the last years of his life in Tangiers; he has memories of happy childhood vacations spent there, and wants to give to his own children ‘a gift of cultural color’. Last but not least, he is hungry for adventure, for freedom from safety – apparently he gets more than he bargained for in that department.
In an act of overweening recklessness, he purchases ‘Dar Khalifa’ (the Caliph’s House), a place with an interesting history. In his initial description of the Caliph’s House, one can sense why it enchanted him – his details of fountains in the courtyard, intricate craftsmanship, and wisps of lingering glory would make anyone swoon, and Shah comes across as a man of lavish, expensive tastes, but with an exquisite sense of beauty and art. He sees the house not as it is, but as it can be, and dreams of restoring it to the grandeur stolen by the years. It seems to be love at first sight.
As the say, the path of true love is never smooth. Along with the house he inherits three ghoulish retainers, the Guardians, who in their turn are terrified of the malignant and powerful Jinn that they claim inhabits the house. Shah finds himself awash in unbridled superstitions, disgruntled neighbors, bureaucratic red-tape, and crafty artisans who see him as the proverbial cash cow that they intend to milk dry. Alas, ‘baraka’ (divine blessing) is not on his side. Indeed, he seems plagued by a series of misfortunes near biblical in proportion.
Shah had lured his wife to Morocco by promising her a battalion of domestic help, but soon they discover themselves over-ruled and undermined by their staff. Shah, after a dismal experience with his first personal assistant seems to strike gold with his second – the dazzlingly efficient Kamal, who soon proves to be more indispensable than his right hand, but also as shady as a backstreet alley. We tend to feel sorry for the author, but with the mental reservation that he has brought this all on himself.
The book is a highly personal and impressionistic account of Morocco. Perhaps, that’s why I would prefer to label this as a memoir rather than travel writing. Shah is a silver-tongued storyteller. He seems so chronically unlucky that the startling climax comes across as a jolt. The conclusion is surprisingly gratifying, and has us marveling, “Well, whaddya  know - the guy had baraka after all.” To check out the result of his magnificent obsession, just google images of Dar Khalifa.

No comments: