Review: The Caliph's House

The Caliph\'s House : A Year in CasablancaThe Caliph’s House, a Year in Casablanca, by Tahir Shah.
[rating:5/5]

The Caliph’s House is Tahir Shah tale of moving his family’s residence from the relative tranquility of London to the chaotic culture of the Moroccan city of Casablanca. The book is full of wonderful observations, characters, and scenes:

We shunned the highway and took the old, disintegrating road that ran along the coast as far as Agadir. Beyond it, we were in the desert. After many hours in the wretched butcher’s car, I swore I’d buy my own vehicle as soon as we got home. The only things to take our minds off the rotting seats were the sand and the dust, and the boys swinging squirrels. There were just one or two at first, standing on the side of the road. As soon as they saw a car, they would ship their arms up, whirling strings around their heads like lassos. At the end of each string was a terrified ball of fur. I slammed on the brakes, cursed the boys, bought their squirrels, and released them a few miles on— just in time to meet another group of boys with another clutch of squirrels. The more damn squirrels I rescued, the more there were being tortured, waiting for a stupid foreigner to save them.

Shah’s attempts to restore his new home, Dar Khalifa, to its former glory with traditional Moroccan artisans is a process filled with color and very amusing characters. The neighborhood comes alive with jihadis, gangsters, shantytown dwellars, mysterious merchants, and Eid:

When prayers were at an end, everyone rushed home, where their rams were waiting for the knife. But no blood was spilled until news came that the king’s own sacrifice had been made. Then the orgy of death commenced. Every household in the land slit a throat, except for our own. The sound of dying animals was tumultuous. Ariane was in the garden when the killing began. She asked me why the animals were crying out, why they were so sad. I kept her at Dar Khalifa. All around the house the streets were red, soaked in blood, as the head man of each house butchered an animal and skinned it. The aroma of roasting mutton began to emanate from the shacks. It hung above the shantytown in an oily cloud. While the mothers cooked the meat, their children roasted the rams’ heads on homemade braziers in the alleyways. They cracked the skulls, scooped out the sizzling brains, and gobbled them up.

Helping Shah in a completely unconventional style is his newfound assistant Kamal. Kamal is a great character, so streetwise that he seems to know everything and everyone:
Kamal noticed me wondering why the child was clapping while his father prayed. I had assumed it was an act of piety.

“Can you understand it?” he said.

“Understand what?”

“The father needs his son to guard the money,” he said, “but he doesn’t trust him. He thinks the boy will grab some cash when his back is turned.”

“So?”

“So he tells the boy to clap,” Kamal said. “If the clapping stops, it means the boy’s hands are stealing the cash.

The Caliph’s House, a Year in Casablanca, by Tahir Shah.
[rating:5/5]

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