Tired of what he describes as his “meager existence” under the wet, grey skies of England, Tahir Shah decides to uproot his wife and young children and move to Morocco, chronicling their experience in The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca. Shah purchases the Caliph’s house (Dar Khalifa) in Casablanca, a dilapidated home, empty for ten years and situated on the edge of a shantytown. Upon entering his new home, he discovers his house comes equipped with a staff of three guardians and a she-jinn known as Qandisha. The intrepid guardians do their best to educate Shah on Moroccan ways and caution him to tread carefully so as not to incur the wrath of Qandisha who haunts the house and who (understandably) resents his presence.
So begins a year of living in the Caliph’s house. Shah’s vision is to remodel the decrepit home and restore it to its former glory. This brings him in contact with Moroccan craftsmen who are incredibly skilled at what they do but who work at a maddeningly slow pace. Shah eventually learns to accept the Moroccan way of doing things and, by the end of the year, the Caliph’s house has been beautifully remodeled with fountains, colorful mosaics, plush gardens, and a library that is the envy of any book lover. Additionally, the jinn have been successfully exorcised from his home through a combination of prayers, chanting, rituals, and the slaughter of a goat. The book concludes with Shah and his wife lying back and admiring all they have accomplished in the space of a year. He is finally at peace.
Some of the fantastic happenings in the book should be taken with a grain of salt. But perhaps nothing is quite as unbelievable as Shah’s gallant determination to forge ahead in the face of what appear to be insurmountable challenges. Shah speaks of these challenges with humor and irony. What shines throughout is his love for his adopted country in spite of the trials and tribulations he endures—or, perhaps, because of them.
Shah graphically illuminates Moroccan culture and life in Dar Khalifa. His engaging jaunt through the underbelly of Moroccan life exposes us to shady characters who speak in ambiguities, a place where corruption is rampant, where poverty abounds, and where money exchanges hands without quite knowing what one is getting in return. It is an excursion made all the more appealing due to Shah’s ability to capture the sights, sounds, scents, and texture of life in Morocco that waft through every page with vibrancy and color. A delightful and entertaining read. Highly recommended.