A Review of Tahir Shah's The Caliph's House


           Anyways, let's drop any kind of hindrances aside and let me start by pouring out the whole feelings, inquiries and responses which accompanied me while and after reading the Caliph's House by Tahir Shah. To tell you the truth I was reluctant for a long time to do any readings which might be related to contemporary writers of which I label Tahir Shah. The only reason behind this tendency is the idea that most of those writers don't really labor, strife and writhe to come up with a linguistically well-sustained fictitious piece of writing similar to those classical masterpieces such as Moby Dick, Far From the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure, Heart of Darkness, Sons and Lovers, Wuthering Heights and the list is long. I used to find any contemporary fiction devoid of any deep linguistic or meaningfessence, but I have to admit that nowadays I totally changed this way of judging when I was introduced to contemporary writers such as Milan Kundera, Nafisi Araz, Tahir Shah, Don DeLillo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others. Oh, I drifted again. Sometimes it's so hard for me to strictly control the reins of my aesthetic pathos, but never mind.

        Yeah, to The Caliph's House now, at last. My own responses are liable to be different from any of the groups members being a citizen of and subject in the country where the story of the book took place. I must admit right from the very beginning that Tahir had managed to a great extent to draw a general cultural miniature of the Moroccan society relying on his own westerner/foreigner experience in Casablanca.I was even astonished to find out that he managed to penetrate into some very distinctive features of our own society which we as Moroccans try to shun or negate or somehow camouflage for their own insolence or villainess. Examples of those things are the drastic belief in superstitions, witchcraft and Jinns in particular in such modern times as these. Yet, I still find these somehow degenerate features which the westerner finds impossible to believe in kind of specific distinctive cultural features which defines a society in the eyes of another. Of course these beliefs have receded in a way or another because of the huge post-modern globalized shape of the present world.

        I loved the smooth recounting of the story and I admire the genuine descriptions of all the Moroccan characters which happened to cross Tahir's way. I loved the authenticity of forming judgments and drawing conclusion whenever faced with an unbelievable incident and I admired most of all his willingness to quest, inquire and seek explanations for matters which his western mind couldn't grasp in such short periods of time. I remember his strife to cope with the guards who tried to give metaphysical explanations to matter which human experiment could easily answer.I Liked his humanness and humanitarian feeling which he showed throughout the novel whenever one of his guards fell in a critical situation or the way he befriended and support the stamps collector.

             The belief in jinns as invisible existent spirits pervades the Moroccan culture because they were mentioned basically in the most holy referential book which is the Koran. I addition to that theological basis some people have been through real concrete experiences where they saw the jinns either taking some vessels somewhere or smacking some members of their families or haunting someone or simply situation where light is switched on or off by itself. Most of the Moroccan people believe in jinns either because they've seen them in reality through concrete experiences, the slamming of a door as soon as one gets out by a power unseen for example,or these kind of beliefs are infused in them by mere cultural subconscious. I believe personally in them thought I consider myself a post-modern fellow because I've seen and lived through situations where it is impossible to call for any scientific experimental explanation. Human mind is still limited to a certain sphere where it revolves no matter how far we went in our scientific discoveries and we must accept this truth. There are other reasons behind many existential phenomena which our brains fail to prove or experiment.

        Concerning the aphorisms accompanying each new chapter I think it's in a way hard for anybody not acquainted with Moroccan culture to associate them with anything inside the chapters. The aphorisms might seem out of place because they are culturally loaded and they need to be understood particularly inside a range of Moroccan cultural contexts. I personally grasped their meanings and associated them with particular incidents inside each chapter and I am just inquiring about you, the other readers of the same work of fiction!! Yet, I must admit that some of those aphorisms are in a way far-fetched and they don't necessarily comply with the general meaning of the chapter, as an example I cite "trust in god, but tie your camel well" in chapter ten. As for the illustrations as a technique or rather tool used to emphasize and shed much more light on the incidents they are perfectly in the right place and they perfectly blend with the cultural features described in the novel.

           Yeah, it gets kind of hazy and muzzy whenever we try to come up with the reasons behind Tahir's willingness to let things drift as they had to. I still wonder about the reasons which pushed him not to manage everything with a strong grip. I believe that if a person happens to be the boss, he is supposed to reign over his subject with firmness and make his word heard, which was just the opposite with Tahir. I think the reason behind this is his primary bewilderment which he experienced when he first set foot on such a monumental propriety as the Caliph's House. He was astonished with all that he came to possess and he thought that everything would go as smooth as it used to be thinking about himself as a post-modern new successor of Haroun Rashid 's palace with all its Harem, slaves, cooks and diverse entourage.

          All in all, The Caliph's House remains one of those novels which mix autobiographical data with historical factual incidents in an attempt to reflect those unavoidable confrontations that take place due to cultural differences. It is a daring and detailed account of the real life experience of a western in an eastern setting. The reading of this novel should be succeed for a complete vision of  Moroccan culture  by others readings such as A House in Fez by Suzanna Clarke and  In Arabian Nights by the same author.


An Unnoticed Departure

Even the secluded bus stop was empty. May be I have lost the only one that I used to find waiting for me here, in the same place, the same time. Was it only a certain breaching of a settled plan? No, no, I do not think so. Something happened! Even the birds that I was accustomed to hear singing were not there anymore .Something happened, and it seems to me that all the natural components that surrounded me ceased to make me feel the same feelings; ominous shadows passed by me. I felt sad and I was aware of it. I realized that the one that I was thinking of right now was away because she did not want to see the signs of sadness and gloominess on my cheerful face .She preferred to fly away because she could not stand it; years of kindness, good friendship and motherly care were just disappearing at this moment .Are we always doomed to depart as the first day we met? I asked myself.

Can we not enjoy the “cup” of happiness to its full? The constant answer seems always to be no. We are going to depart as the first day we met. DEPARTURE was not only a simple word for me; it appeared to mean much: it was more than just moving away from a place into another direction, it was more than removing one’s self from an association with something else; it was not the same as “The train departs at noon”. Departure for me was more than all that. At this moment exactly the circumstances in which we met come to my mind. It was just by chance, we met while trying to get some rest of the exhaustive effort we made when we were searching for the room forty-seven .I waved my hand to her and she responded. I was at that time in want of somebody whom can share my loneliness and she was searching for someone too; and we both met at the exact time. I now regret all that and I know that you will do too. Now we shall depart as we first met; it looks as being hazardous, just by chance, but I can’t cease imagining you to be a certain solace sent for me.

Now you are away, in reality I don’t seem to care; but at least I would like someone close to whom I can say goodbye. I remember that I didn’t ever say goodbye with that much of tender and affection; even to some members of my family. Those moments of saying goodbye were for me those associated with a kind of unwanted pity and bad anticipations of something wring. So, I always curse such instants.

I did not really like to say goodbye, suppose we meet again; I would regret at that moment that I said goodbye. Let us just drop saying goodbye, we can just walk side by side till the first empty carrefour in that half empty street and shake hands with much or less warmth and say “For so Long”. Thus, now I am going to leave you without even thinking of the bad or good things consciously or unconsciously associated with our meeting because it only adds to my sufferance .Love, affection, care, passion, friendship and all those other well-liked notions have just been there and they seem to vanish at this actual instant. From affection I had much; in moments of humiliation I wanted not to see your face .I was afraid that you will despise me when I look coward and timid despite my Invulnerable struggle .All the people feel like that and it is a human nature .I am still waiting for you now, but it seems that it is time to leave; the leaving is to somewhere else .I don’t know where, but I can’t stop to think about the next direction since the bus is already here. Even the bus appeared to be tired of carrying the filthy and sweating human bodies with their innumerable sins and furious noise. With much effort it climbed up the hill and it seemed to perspire, and the smoke of anger was blowing in the wind.

I will write an adieu note that you will find in that perpetually overcrowded and smoky cafeteria with that bold short man who used to tease us .I felt that he was eagerly waiting for this right moment to witness the end of a simple love story that unhappily broke before its beginning. The note will exclusively contain my simple, bare, and shallow words of saying goodbye.

 June 25th  2007
At 08:30 in Dakhla, Agadir


Background Information

Sometimes I need some time...on my
own Sometimes I need some time...all alone
Everybody needs some time...on their own
Don't you know you need some time...all alone
Guns and Roses from November Rain Song

These simple lines, humble pages or what ever you might call them were written in such moments that may characterize every student’s life in his last year at the university. Those moments when, as a young man of 22 years, I hung my head in sadness because I was totally perplexed thinking about my future or the next step to take. I found it later quite normal to feel that way as I did when I realized that everyone was carrying the same heavy load while thinking about rent money, transport money, books, and food.

I was totally disappointed, frustrated, and indifferent to what may come because I had always in my mind the examples of those people who have worked hard and yet did not come to make it. I was expecting myself to be living in the same deplorable conditions that I have heard of bound by the same circumstances that were not all the time satisfactory. Many queer thoughts went into my head, but I was pushing them since I thought that it was not time yet for their execution. A good friend who used to plentifully lecture on topics such as modernism, postmodernism, linguistics, existentialism, literary theory and other topics did not make it and he is away passing time in a field that he doesn’t like at all. At least he thought that had found a job that might keep him away from his parents’ praying eyes and neighbourhood’s nipping chatter which is not all the time encouraging.

Thinking about the future, as for anybody else, was for me a heavy burden to bear. Nobody would easily accept to feel idle, dependent, or a heavy burden that someone else is thinking always to carry on his shoulders. I have always felt ashamed when I met the same old countrymen with their watery eyes looking at me with that kind of unshaken disdainful derision thinking that I didn’t succeed to make it. The smell of failure was filling the realm around me, and I was always afraid that someday it might befall me .The failure is more pernicious and prejudicial especially when you do not succeed to meet the preset expectations that were formed by those people who belong to your most frequented areas or social group. I do not think that if I failed, I would ever go back and live among all those people who were saying that someday I will be a brilliant teacher, a laborious doctor or a famous lawyer. I think that it would be better to roam, err and disappear away from the mocking gazes of all those who hoped that one day you will succeed. Failure as I came to know is reduced when you are far from the madding crowd of your people that had permanently associated with your unrelenting endeavour an amount of great expectations.

When you fail, nobody will say that you are not heavy to carry just because you are his brother, his relative or his son. And even if he did, he will never succeed to resist till the end. “The road iswith many a winding turn that lead us to who knows where” was always the sole answer that I got from the Hollies. Everyone has to find his way before it is too dark to search.

The following simple pages are all squeezed from my humble personal life during high school and university years. They are a testimony of my tendencies, way of thinking, emotions, endeavours and future expectations. You might find them worth reading if you happen to share the same personal traits, thoughts and expectations, but you might also consider them something of over-familiar and commonplace according to your anticipations.