The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah
Date finished: 12/19/11
How I found this book: This book was sitting on display at the library because it is the January selection for the international book club.
The Caliph’s House is the non-fiction story of a man who decides to move his family from London to Casablanca. (I say “man who decides” deliberately, more on that later.) Tahir buys a large, dilapidated property in Casablanca, the “Caliph’s house” and moves there with his wife and two children, one only two months old. The rest of book tells of his efforts to renovate the house and track down information about his grandfather who had died in Morocco many years before. (Tahir’s family history is quite an interesting story itself. He is Afghan-Scots-Indian and grew up in England.) The renovation effort is complicated by the fact that the Caliph’s house is declared to be haunted by djinns who are blamed for all sorts of problems that occur. Going by this book, it seems like everyone in Morocco believes in djinns. Even those who say they don’t believe in djinns still act as if they do. I hadn’t known this previously but it turns out that djinns are actually part of the Quran.
Casablanca is portrayed as a once elegant city, now in a bit of decay. (The author actually goes to see the movie Casablanca in Casablanca during the course of the book. He concludes that the movie bears almost no resemblance to the real city) Chaos reigns, from traffic to legal enforcement to household affairs. Because the book deals with renovating a house, a lot of the focus is on builders, architects, and suppliers. Haggling and deal-making are key. Corruption and dishonesty are rampant. The builders fit what must be a world-wide stereotype- they start a project and tear everything apart and then promptly disappear. I suspect that quite a lot of the stories in this book are exaggerated for effect. At least I certainly hope they are!
One other thing that struck me about the book was how little role the author’s wife played. Tahir seems to have simply decided one day to move his family to Morocco. His wife is mentioned only rarely as he runs around the city hiring people and planning renovations. The only time she shows up as a real character is to burst into tears at having to deal with feuding servants. She is placated and the story moves on. As I read, I kept expecting there to be some sort of disclaimer that the author’s wife had asked that she be left out of the book as much as possible. I never found one though, so I am left wondering whether this book was an accurate portrayal of their family dynamic. If so, I find that rather sad.