The Caliph’s House

“There was a sadness in the stillness of dusk. The cafe was packed with long-faced men in robes sipping black coffee, smoking dark tobacco. A waiter weaved between the tables, tray balanced on upturned fingertips, glass balanced on tray. In that moment, day became night. The sitters drew deep on their cigarettes, coughed, and stared out at the street. Some were worrying, others dreaming, or just sitting in silence. The same ritual is played out each evening across Morocco, the desert kingdom in Africa’s northwest, nudged up against the Atlantic shore. As the last strains of sunlight dissipated, the chatter began again, the hum of calm voices breaking gently over the traffic.”

“The backstreet cafe in Casablanca was for me a place of mystery, a place with a soul, a place with danger. There was a sense that the safety nets had been cut away, that each citizen walked upon the high wire of this, the real world. I longed not merely to travel through it, but to live in such a city.”

Tahir Shah uproots his wife Rachana and two young children from England to Morocco, where his grandfather lived and died. They move into Dar Kalifa or the Caliph’s House and this book chronicles their first year in Casablanca, a story of jinns, exorcisms, house renovation, living next to a bidonville (a shanty town) and a gangster. Sounds entertaining enough.

It does start out well, mostly because I love the setting of Morocco and it was intriguing to read of someone who dared to take that leap and live in this beautiful, very different country. It was especially interesting to read about the refurbishing of the house, learning about how the artisans put together the traditional Moroccan bejmat tiles and the traditional plasterwork tadelakt, which required the purchase of many eggs. Shah was able to bring out all the little nuances of life, interactions and relationships with the people of Morocco.

The Caliph’s House is a pretty humorous read, although a lot of times I can’t help but wonder what goes on in that head of his. He makes a lot of silly mistakes, like wiring the architect the full amount he demands before the work is completed, and ordering a crateful of furniture from India after one drink too many. It can be a bit frustrating reading this book, for me, the height of bizarreness was when some “psuedo friends” arrive to stay, take over their bedroom resulting in Tahir and his family checking themselves into a hotel. I’ve never heard of anything like that before! These people are rather frustrating (and I don’t mean the pseudo friends). It makes for some entertaining reading, but in the end, got a bit too much for me.

But what I found most disconcerting was the seeming non-existence of his wife in this book. She appears only very occasionally, mostly to complain about something or give a little feedback (usually just a sentence). And then disappears again for pages and pages. I was unable to grasp a single idea about who she is, except for the fact that she’s from India. Oh and that on one occasion she cooked a lot of chicken curry. Really? It’s as if she doesn’t live there at all. We know far more about the jinn Qandisha than we do about his family. The experience of his family,  was sorely missing in this book, and for me, resulted in an incomplete story. Pity.

This is  my second read for the Moroccan leg of the Reading the World Challenge, and while  a better read than the first one, it still was lacking something.

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