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The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca Paperback – December 26, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. When Shah, his pregnant wife and their small daughter move from England to Morocco, where he'd vacationed as a child, he enters a realm of "invisible spirits and their parallel world." Shah buys the Caliph's House, once a palatial compound, now heavy with algae, cobwebs and termites. Unoccupied for a decade, the place harbors a willful jinni (invisible spirit), who Shah, the rational Westerner, reluctantly grasps must be exorcised by traditional means. As Shah remodels the haunted house, he encounters a cast of entertaining, sometimes bizarre characters. Three retainers, whose lives are governed by the jinni, have attached themselves to the property. Confounding craftsmen plague but eventually beautify the house. Intriguing servants come and go, notably Zohra, whose imaginary friend, a 100-foot tall jinni, lives on her shoulder. A "gangster neighbor and his trophy wife" conspire to acquire the Caliph's House, and a countess remembers Shah's grandfather and his secrets. Passers-through offer eccentricity (Kenny, visiting 15 cities on five continents where Casablanca is playing; Pete, a convert to Islam, seeking "a world without America"). There is a thin, dark post-9/11 thread in Shah's elegantly woven tale. The dominant colors, however, are luminous. "[L]ife not filled with severe learning curves was no life at all," Shah observes. Trailing Shah through his is sheer delight. Illus. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Bookmarks Magazine
In the March 2006 issue of The Atlantic, Terry Castle faced his addiction to the shelter magazines and furnishings catalogues that drive the "billion dollar business of home improvement." These same addicts put books like Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence and Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun atop the best seller lists. Travel writer Tahir Shah (In Search of King Solomon's Mines; Sorcerer's Apprentice) possesses the same idealistic (and some critics say naïve) pursuit of greener grass through domestic upheaval. While critics compare his book with the aforementioned classics of the genre, it is Shah's dark humor and skillful depiction of Casablanca that distinguish The Caliph's House. Though less intrepid souls might not care to live there, reviewers insist a few nights at Dar Khalifa in the company of such a talented writer is time well spent.<BR>Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
It was interesting at times but it felt contrived, superficial and forced, as if he were embellishing to make it more amusing. I humbly apologize to the author if this is a verbatim account of his expat (his family was born in the region) exploits. I can only give my impressions as a reader...
I can't readily recommend...
The story line involves a Londoner of Afghan descent who moves his young family to a rundown but beautiful estate home just outside a bidonville of Casablanca intending to restore the house to its former glory. Work proceeds, or not, based on a complicated system of beliefs and customs that we learn about through a series of work stoppages, destructions and contractors. As it turns out, the house comes with three longtime resident guardians who have much advice that varies as to usefulness and self-servingness. Some of this is laugh out loud funny and some provides deep cultural insights. I knew nothing about djins before reading this book and the author knew nothing about them before writing it. Nonetheless, if you have djins in your toilets or wells, there is hell to pay.
This is a beautifully written book replete with cultural context and human concerns. It evokes a powerful sense of place. It is also by turns hilarious and deeply moving. In the end, it is a delightful book that is also insightful about working class Moroccan life.
The reason I can't give this book four stars is because it could be about half the length it is. For example, in one sequence late in the book he describes in great detail how he buys cedar wood for construction of his new library. Hemingway is turning over in his grave. The other reason this book can't be higher than three stars is because it is episodic and formulaic. Here is the formula of each episode: Shah wants to do a renovation project in the house, the caretakers tell him it will be difficult because the house is haunted by evil spirits, his other assistant Kamal finds some back alley way to get the job done. Repeat that sequence and you have the book. Also, Shah has this incredibly annoying habit of ending each episode with a cliffhanger quote that is I suppose supposed to be amusing but is in fact irritating because the situations are never that dangerous or worrisome. He tries to build in drama where simple descriptions might do.
Lastly, Shah must be a wealthy man. He isn't transparent about how much money is required to buy a house in Casablanca, employ anywhere from four to ten servants, keep up a local school through donations, renovate the house with intricate work, buy a car, and such is, but this is no task that an average person can perform, and as such the book leaves you with the knowledge that as long as you have enough money, life will be secure, albeit at times unpredictable due to the varying levels of dependability of those you interact with. It reminds me a little of the TV show West World in the sense that you pay a ton of money to have a "real" experience in an exotic place while all the normal, non-wealthy people out there have to work through their drab existence from paycheck to paycheck.