Tahir’s Shah’s acclaimed The Caliph’s House recounted his first year of living in Morocco Now –in an adventure worthy of the mystical Arabian Nights– He ventures deeper into the heart of this exotic, magical land in search of mysteries hidden from Western eyes for centuries..
As he makes his way through the medinas of Fez and Marrakech, traverses the Sahara sands and tastes the hospitality of ordinary Moroccans, he collects a dazzling treasury of traditional stories, gleaned from the heritage of the Thousands and One nights, recounted by a vivid cast of characters, traverses tales reveal fragments of wisdom and an oriental way of thinking that are both enthralling and fresh. A link in the chain of scholars and teachers who have passed these stories down from father to son, mother to daughter, Tahir Shah discovers a side to Morocco that most visitors hardly realize exists and eventually discovers the story living in his own heart. So the book records snippets of stories heard from the local Moroccans. The cobbler, the peddler, the Tuareg people of the Sahara, taxi driver, his friends that frequent the café all had a story, folklore or a fable to tell. In one conversation between Tahir and his daughter, Ariane that summarized very well how I feel about story telling, it goes:
Ariane came home from school and said she had learned the story of Robin Hood. She had drawn a picture of the folk hero in Sherwood Forest, with butterflies all round. She asked me if he was real.
‘What do you mean, “real”?’
‘Did Robin Hood have a mummy and daddy?’
‘I suppose he did,’ I said.
‘What were their names?’
‘Ariane, that’s not important,’ I said. ‘You see, stories are not like the real world; they aren’t held back by what we know is false or true. What’s important is how a story makes you feel inside.’
‘Baba, do you mean you can lie?’
‘It’s not lying; it’s more like being fluid – fluid with facts.’
Ariane squinted hard, pushed back her hair.
‘Can I call them Henry and Isabelle, then?’
‘Robin Hood’s mummy and daddy.’
‘Yes, of course you can.’
‘Can i pretend they lived here in Casablanca?’
‘Yes, I suppose you could do that, too.’
‘Can I marry Robin Hood when I grow up?’
I watched the BBC series of Robin Hood in my teens, I was deeply infatuated with Robin Hood, and had imagined myself as Lady Marion who staked everything and live with Robin Hood in the forest to rob the rich and give it to the poor. I had visited Nottingham in 1995, didn’t go as far as Sherwood Forest though. When we were children, we tend to imagine a made-up world, fitting the reality with the story, like if Robin Hood has parents, and if so what are their names. I suppose when I grew older, these questions remain when I read a story, but this time more logical thinking is involved, I would have asked what are the names of Robin Hood’s parents, what his parents do for a living, and how Robin Hood is brought up, where did he get the idea to steal from? and then I will go ahead and search the Internet to find out if Robin Hood is real. If he is a fiction, the claim of such existence of a hero will be substantially undermined. The magic of stories seems to wane as we grow older. We only believes what is tangible, what is logical, what we can relate in our daily lives.
As Tahir’s life in Casablanca settled in and he travels around the country, there are no short of humour of people that he met and the places that he visited. One of the guardian Hamza had resigned from his job, new maid is employed, while the existing nanny Zohra held the power at home, buying a new car but carry a sieve to appear as local resident. Readers who hunt his house down after reading his the Caliph’s House book (something that I thought of doing), his wife Rachana is not pleased to open up their private homes for requested visits. Visited Hicham’s grave and learning about his selfless deeds from another visitor of his grave, Othman, a thief turned businessman, thanks to Hicham, the postal worker. The story of Joha, a folk hero which comes in slightly different names around the various muslim countries, more often stories of Joha brings a smile. The night he waited for the bus to Casablanca and was housed by a police officer for the night, telling the story of the man who search for happiness only to find them at source, the night he found his heart story. On a more unpleasant note, he also recounted his harrowing experience locked in Pakistani prison for 16 days of torture and interrogation.
In our world, we frown on the illiterate because we feel they are missing out on the wealth of information stored in books. But at the same time we are who we are as a result of illiteracy through much of human history. If you have no written language, you have to commit information to memory. Instead of reading it, you rely on those with the information – the story tellers – to recount it.
By their nature, most tribal and nomadic societies have had no writing system, and they are blessed as a result. They depend on one another for entertainment, for stimulation. Huddled around the campfire, the story tellers pass on the collective wisdom of the tribe. The information has an extra dimension because it enters the body through the ears and not through the eyes. Listen, stare into the flames, and imagination unfolds.
Tahir’s father said that the more you read a story – the same story- the more it works on your mind. Like a beautiful flower bud, the story opens up and flowers with time. Seeing my children enjoy the same tales time after time helped me to see that this repetition is a kind of natural setting inside us all. But as adults in our world, and with the train of reading rather than oral repetition we choose a new text rather than a known one. Our competence in reading is something of which we are especially proud. We published hundreds of miles of books each years and fill cavernous libraries with them. Mass education, has of course, led to the upsurge in writing. We cling to the belief that the more we read, the wiser we become. My father would say the Western world spends far too much time reading and far too little time understanding. A key difference between Oriental and Occidental minds: Eastern society values that which is tried and tested. Stories that have been in circulation for millennia are regarded as having real value, as being containers of inner wisdom. Whereas Western society constantly demands new materials.
Interestingly illiteracy was mentioned in the book The Reader by Berhnard Schlink, the shame that is carried is so huge that Hanna was willing to go to jail for it. But what Tahir said is true. I scorned at people who don’t read enough. I get frustrated when I detected the narrow minded of an individual who do not read enough. The Moroccan homes that I visited doesn’t have many books in it, lest to mention a bookshelf. But does that make me more knowledgeable than these people? Maybe Yes, maybe not. Depending on what topic we are talking about. Perhaps the reason for me reading so much the past year was aptly laid out in the following encounter of Tahir with a producer from Chicago, Kate:
Kate, a Chicago based film producer said her father told her to read a lot of fiction, whatever problems whack you in life, he said the answer was fiction. Stories. It is psychotherapy. ‘I read books all the same, and I found that they worked in a silent way, balancing my mind. I’m a believer in the idea that Hollywood’s a mass psychotherapist. The stories go into the subconscious and work away. People don’t realise it, but when they go to the movies on a Friday night, they’re really paying a visit to their shrink.’
Yes, therefore I read and read. There were so many problems that whacked me from left and right, I didn’t know how to deal with them, things which are beyond my control; therefore I read. I read and read………
This a book full of charm and humour. Shines through the narrative is the author’s decency and respect for the people and the cultures he encounters…. A tribute to our potential for understanding and learning to live with irreconcilable differences. Yes, I should learn from him. I have so much irreconcilable differences with my Moroccan in-laws. I just have to learn to live with it. Meanwhile I leave you with this piece of wisdom:
I cannot tell you what story is in your heart, ‘ he said. ‘But I can tell you that money earned with ease is the devil’s currency. Everything it touches is cursed. If you want prosperity, work hard for it and don’t take charity unless you are a day away from being drowned.’
‘Drowned by water?’
‘Drowned by life,’ Said Mustapha of Quarzazate.
What I like about the book:
A collection of Oriental short stories and folklore that passes through generations.
What I like least about the book:
I didn’t find anything that I didn’t like about the book, perhaps the only one is it is not as good as The Caliph’s House.
I found a beautiful collection of Tahir Shah and his family in Dar Khalifah, see here. I am really impressed!