Look into the eyes of a jinn and you stare into the depths of your own soul…Writer and film-maker Tahir Shah – in his 30s, married, with two small children – was beginning to wilt under brash, cramped, ennervating British city life. Flying in the face of friends’ advice, he longed to fulfil his dream of finding a place bursting with life, colour, history and romance – somewhere far removed from London – in which to raise a family. Childhood memories of holidaying with his parents, and of a grandfather he barely knew, led him to Morocco and to ‘Dar Khalifa’, a sprawling and, with the exception of its jinns, long-abandoned residence on the edge of Casablanca’s shanty town that, rumour had it, once belonged to the city’s Caliph.
Soon Tahir and family is plagued with a series of problems. 3 dead cats was frequently found his yard, 3 guardians who introduced bizarre rituals to please the Jinn named qandisha, story has it that someone died in a room that remains locked in the backyard. The title and deed of Dar Khalifah was lost in the Land registry office. Godfather and wife of the slum are eyeing their house menacingly, threatening that the authority will repossess the property if they can’t find their papers. The authority also sent bulldozer to tear down the illegal slums, and soon the Hamzah and other 2 guardians and families moved in with Tahir and feed on his generosity housing more free-loaders than one could handle. Runaway maids, a personal assistant who dream of marrying Moroccans in foreign country,and believe that Amina the 100-feet Jinn who sits on her left shoulder; to top it off the renovation work is progressing very slowly in Dar Khalifah, with craft men frequently acting up, knocking down the wrong walls and creating more damage than improving it. I cringed in pain when I read on to find out that is not where the calamity ends. The builders injured, gardeners fell off from the ladder, the locusts came, rats are infested in their house and gnawing away at their precious belongings and children’s toys, bees flew in to the backyard, mosquitos disturbed their sleep. The family is poisoned when one of the guardian threw in a dead chicken into the well to appease the jinn. It is almost as if the curse of the Jinn is at work to oust Tahir out from the house.
Thank God for his new personal assistant,the ingenious Kamal, who fixes Tahir’s life and help restore some order back into his daily grind. Kamal managed to obtain the right engine for Tahir’s Korean Jeep (the original was a fake), led him to shop for an antique bath with half the price in antique market, Hay Hassani. Find locals who knit strong net over the swimming pool with a fraction of price, arrange for pest control, find reliable carpenter to build a bookshelf out of authentic cedar wood procure from the local market, get the best sand in the middle of the night for renovation, also saving the truck driver from jail on new year’s eve, arrange Tahir’s containers from the UK for hassle-free custom clearance (saving the trouble to translate all his English books to Arabic for local censorship approval!), arrange for craft mens to continue the renovation of the house, banister for stairs, and even arrange a team of exorcists to Dar Khalifah from the Rif mountains. Kamal is the quintessential Moroccan. Like my husband, throw him a problem or a request, they would be able to solve the problem, source it at the cheapest price, the fastest way; whether it is in their own country or in a foreign land.
In the midst of these trouble, Tahir befriended Hicham, a retired postal worker with a penchant for stamp collecting, died with cancer, bequethed his collection to Tahir, which he sold and gave the money to his widow. He also meet Francois, consellor of the French embassy in Casablanca for tea occasionally, imparting cautionary advice on dealing with Moroccans, ironically he proclaimed to love them at the same time. He went off to visit Pete, a texan who is also a new muslim convert, about to marry Yasmin in Chefchaoun. At the same time, he is following the trail of his grandfather who lives in Tangier after his Scottish wife died, and one day out for a walk was knocked down by a Coca-cola truck. Countess Madeliene de Longvic was his grandfather’s good friend, as she recounted the places Tahir’s grandfather bought honey and support a son of a free mason to be a surgeon for many years.
Tahir is impartial when writing about the Moroccans, they are painted as people who are ready to pounce for the chance to rip him apart, a superstitious lot, the free-loaders, blaming on Jinns (or other things for not taking the accountability of a mistake), the type of people who would suffocate you with kindness leaving you very little personal space to make your own decision, everyone tries desperately to get you to do what they think is best for you; soon he found himself surrounded by guardians, maids, nanny, gardener, builders, in his ownwords, “filled with people who were trying to control us”. Through the eyes of a external person, it reaffirms all the doubts and beliefs I have about Moroccans. You will never understand another culture if you don’t truly belong or experience it, not as a bystanders, not as a traveller, but only truly understand by someone who is married to or imbibed in the Moroccan culture. I relate to Tahir’s experience. 101%.
Tahir also portrays the Moroccan people as a communal, honest, held steadfast to their traditions, children perceive as life of the society, a nation of poets who speak in parables and proverbs, people who incorporate beauty and art in their daily lives, a nation of artists and artisans, a nation of people embracing change while having a stronghold of their identity and traditions. Lift up the veneer of modernity, you will find a group of people who lives in medieval values and extremely proud of their country, do not be fooled.
A sense that Casablanca had transgressed the boundaries originally set out for it by the French. It was a rare hybrid of a place, a hotchpotch of people from different corners of the same kindgom, thrown together in a great human stew. You never heard a word of praise for Casablanca. It was the butt of every joke, the place that people came to, but never admitted coming from. No one belonged there. But at the same time, we all belonged.
‘C’est cinq milles dirhams’, how much does it costs in Dirham? I heard it so many times in my in-laws’ conversation, but never knew it is part French, part Moroccan sentence. Tangier, Chefchaoun, Casablanca, Meknes, Fez, the spice markets, watching the artisans carve out those beautiful tiles etc., I was there, it doesn’t matter whether I deny vehemently, the culture was a part of me, and me a part of them.
Tahir Shah’s gloriously vivid, funny, affectionate and compelling account of how he and his family – aided, abetted and so often hindered by a wonderful cast of larger-than-life local characters: guardians, gardeners, builders, artisans, bureacrats and police (not forgetting the jinns, the spirits that haunt the house) – returned the Caliph’s House to its former glory and learned to make this most exotic and alluring of countries their home. The Caliph’s House is a story of home-ownership abroad – full of the attendant dramas, anxieties and frustrations – but it is also much more, love, humour, good values and perseverance. Woven into the narrative is the author’s own journey of self-discovery, of learning about a grandfather he hardly knew, and of coming to love the magical, multi-faceted, contradictory country that is Morocco.
What I like about it:
It has everything in it. Introduction to Moroccan culture, travel experience, humour, adventures, heart warming stories, suspense, Tahir Shah is a superb story teller.
What I like least about it:
In conclusive and silent about the dark side of Kamal, why is he not to be trusted? Besides using his master’s house for late night parties and disappear for days without phone calls. Why should Pete, a newly convert muslim, adamant to spread Islam, be labelled as religious fanatic? In my opinion, a tad bit judgmental.