Peter Mayle gave me with my first taste of reading an author’s first hand experience of starting up a new life abroad. As an expat myself, this genre of writing certainly appeals and, to be honest, makes me wish our story was interesting enough to put down on paper. Perhaps someone else’s histoire is always more captivating than your own…
Tahir Shah, author of The Caliph’s House, lives in Casablanca with his wife and two children, plus the staff he obligatorily adopted with the property and a few others as well. To many, completing on a house purchase while suicide bombers wreaked havoc in the city around them would be enough to send anyone packing. But Shah, despite being caught up in the 2003 bomb blast at the Farah Hotel, seems to successfully shrug this off (or at least not dwell on it) and continue with his goal of integrating into Moroccan life, like his Grandfather before him, aiming to create the ideal home in which to bring up his two small children.
His Afghan heritage and travel experience throughout the Arab world and beyond may have helped him to accept and be accepted but he still appears at time quintessentially British and enlists the help of the locals around him to explain, educate and assist him in his endeavours. No doubt their contribution was invaluable particularly in the house renovation project but at times their superstitions, concerns and preoccupations seemed to amusingly (for the reader at least) stifle rather than expedite progress. The jinns, an “army of invisible spirits” were of particular concern and consumed much time and energy!
More of a page turner than most books of this genre, The Caliph’s House will have you crossing your fingers for the family, holding your head in exasperation and gaffawing into your G&T. It’s certainly not just another story of house renovation abroad. Shah’s anecdotal explanations of Morocco, its culture and its people teach you much while entertaining you in such a way that you inwardly digest more information than you could imagine.
For us, reading The Caliph’s House while travelling in Morocco was more educational than swotting up with a guidebook. The author’s storytelling father would be proud of the way his son’s descriptions are capable of “diverting the mind while passing on a kind of inner knowledge” like A Thousand and One Nights. It made me take a sharp intake of breath as we passed the glass fronted bomb stricken hotel which, I confess, I would not have looked at twice without Shah’s book under my belt. His descriptions of Ramadan made us much more tolerant of the shouts and gestures we witnessed in the shambolic traffic jam from the airport to our hotel. And Tahir, I would like you to know that we drank our bottled water in toilet cubicles as we had no kitchen table to hide under at the airport during Ramadan!
We have now swapped the hectic city of Casablanca for the remoteness of the oceanside desert of Western Sahara. You can’t help but focus on the extreme contrasts of life in Morocco when you sit on the edge of nothingness while happily downloading Shah’s sequel In Arabian Nights on wifi. Living in Spain, France, Switzerland or Portugal is nothing. Read The Caliph’s House
if you want to know what living in a FOREIGN country is really all about.