Serendipity enters one’s life when one least expects it.
Yesterday I took advantage of a long layover at Heathrow to wander slowly through Borders’ aisles. Many books called my name, but only one found its way into my carry-on bag: Tahir Shah’s The Caliph’s House.
In the tradition of A Year in Provence and other similar books, The Caliph’s House tells of Shah’s experience relocating to Morocco, buying an old riad in Casablanca, and restoring it – or at least restoring it to inhabitability.
I began reading with the assumption that Shah was a British subject of Indian (Muslim) heritage, based largely on his name (Tahir means “pure” in Arabic) and his wife’s (Rachana, an Indian Hindu name and one, incidentally, shared by one of my favorite college professors.
Soon, however, Shah disclosed that he was Afghani British, not Indian. Hmm, I thought.
He mentioned his father’s regret at having raised his children in a quiet English town rather than in the Hindu Kush, where he had spent his own childhood. Interesting, I thought. Sounds a bit familiar.
Finally, he noted that Morocco held particular fascination for him because his father’s father had moved their after the death of his wife, a Scottish aristocrat known as Bobo. Ahaaaa, I thought. I know who you are!
Tahir Shah is the brother of Saira Shah, whose book The Storyteller’s Daughter started my books around the world posts.
The book was good on its own – a well crafted read and a thoughtful narrative made all the more interesting by the fact that Shah was neither a total newcomer to Morocco nor a complete outsider (he might not be Arab, or Berber, but as a Muslim and a sayyid he is certainly within the community of the faithful).
My reading of The Caliph’s House drew extra richness from all I had learned about the Shahs’ family from The Storyteller’s Daughter. I love literary families – the way individual family members’ memories resonate with one another’s, even when they do not agree. (For example, I think no one should read Edward Said’s Out of Place without also reading his sister Jean Said Makdisi’s Mother, Teta, and Me.)
I read The Caliph’s House all in one gulp, bookended by two venti Starbucks teas, as my layover flew by.