Mar 1, 2007

Book Review: The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca

Shah, Tahir

London: Doubleday, 2006

While there have long been cultural barriers - real and imagined - between the East and the West, in the post-9/11 world these divides are more pronounced; reciprocal paranoia and suspicion are unfortunately the results of the crimes of those 19 fanatics whose acts of terror exacerbated these existing chasms.

Tahir Shah is a writer and documentary filmmaker uniquely positioned to reduce this cross-cultural ignorance. Of Afghan descent, Shah grew up in London, and his professional career mirrors his travels around the world.

The Caliph's House is a narrative based on Shah's move to Morocco, and the purchase of a crumbling old mansion in Casablanca reputed to have once belonged to a local potentate. The author uses his struggle to rebuild the once-glorious estate as a metaphor for his simultaneous attempt to grasp the complexities of a culture he does not understand.

This is not the faux Casablanca of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but rather a gritty, bewildering city that takes time to understand. The author - a product of a very Western upbringing - despairs early on at his inability to come to grips with a society in which he arrogantly once thought he would be quick to enmesh himself.

Shah's strength is in his ability to inject himself into the story as a sort of befuddled minor character, and - while this is his family and his new home - the author is really a minor character in this ensemble. Shah records life in this Moroccan city without glamorizing the people he meets, and without ignoring the myriad problems facing a Muslim society torn between tradition and globalization. At the same time, Shah's deadpan sense of humor made this reviewer at times laugh out loud.

Readers do not leave The Caliph's House with solutions to world problems, but through the eyes of Tahir Shah they gain insight into life in a small corner of the Muslim world. Part travelogue, part This Old House, Shah's book is a book that stays with you, lingering like the resins of a Moroccan espresso.

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