The Premise: Londoner Tahir Shah moves his wife and two young kids to Casablanca to get away from England, where, he repeatedly remarks, he’s sick of fake friends and fake relationships. Harsh. The hook is that he’s found a beautiful and decrepit old dar, and he’s bound and determined to fix it up and make it into a beautiful compound for his family. Let the Money Pit-like hilarity ensue!
The Good: The book is funny. Tahir Shah has basically ZERO experience in Morocco or home fixin’ uppin’, which is kind of a recipe for disaster and lotsa yuks. He delivers. His writing is at times inspired; you can almost hear the merchants hawking their wares, feel the sun beating down on you, smell the orange blossoms, and taste the couscous. You get my drift: It’s vivid.
The Not So Good: So a lot of Shah’s story comes at expense of his new Moroccan pals. The artisans working on his dar are lazy; his super-helpful assistant is a pretty shady guy; and his live-in help is obsessed with Jinns, the evil spirits they’re convinced are causing all the problems at the house. Har har har (sigh). Shah claims over and over that he loves Moroccans and his new home country, but he never really shows it, preferring instead to mine deep cultural traditions in search of a laugh. Ick.
In Shah's Own Words: “Casablanca is a city that never ceases to surprise. When you first arrive, you assume it’s a modern metropolis. But then you begin to glimpse the many layers and conclude that the newfangled buildings and nouveau riche are no more than a façade laid atop a bedrock of raw tradition. After that, you being to see the mixture of new and old, and your doubts begin all over again.”
The Verdict: I enjoyed The Caliph’s House—I sped through it and chuckled a lot, but couldn’t help but feel irritated at parts. I’ve read that Shah’s Moroccan follow-up, In Arabian Nights, is a step-up from this book, and I’ll let him try to redeem himself with that one. So while I haven’t given up on Shah yet, he’s on the author equivalent of a time-out.
Reading anything good out there?