The Madcap Mansion

Reviewed by Jason Goodwin
Sunday, February 19, 2006


A Year in Casablanca

By Tahir Shah

Bantam. 349 pp. $22

It's been 20 years since Peter Mayle wrote his bestseller A Year in Provence , and there's no sign yet of the "Year In . . ." franchise flagging. After all, what two-week vacationer could fail to dream of a year in Provence, Marrakesh or Tuscany? These are modern Mediterranean fairy tales, and they're put together with the simplest ingredients: magical neighbors, hellish builders and much more olive oil than you expected.

The Caliph's House looks like one of those books, but it isn't. British travel writer Tahir Shah's highly readable account of moving his young family to Casablanca is constructed with something weirder and sharper: vinegar, perhaps, and ectoplasm.

It opens ordinarily enough. Shah is at a Casablanca lawyer's office, signing the sale contract, taking in the view of the street, ruminating on why he had always wanted to skip the grey skies of England for the warmth and color of Morocco. He picks up the heavy old key. The caliph's house is his. At that very moment, a car bomb explodes outside the lawyer's office, covering them both with broken glass.

An eerie portent of things to come, perhaps. Shah's new home, the vast Caliph's House, has been empty for 10 years and now stands decrepit, if not derelict, on the fringe of a shantytown. With it, Shah finds that he has also acquired staff: three lugubrious and potentially sinister "guardians," who come "as if by some medieval right of sale." More medieval still, a vengeful she-jinn called Qandisha haunts the house, they say. Over the next few months she reveals her presence in various grisly ways: stringing cats up in trees and sucking raw meat through the toilet bowl. Children are said to be her favorite target. It may be no coincidence that the local gangster wants them out so he can steal the land.

Down in the shantytown an elderly stamp-collector, who will take no money for teaching the author Arabic but likes his foreign stamps, gives him some amiable advice: "You put mannequins in the children's beds, and tell your children to sleep in the oven each night. Do that, and you will all be safe." An educated young lady Shah hires to get the renovations underway ultimately claims to have a 300-meter-tall jinn sitting at her shoulder, cleans out Shah's bank account and reports him as a terrorist to the police. Her replacement -- the crafty, efficient Kamal -- is a binge-drinker on a perpetual high-wire, a sort of psychopathic Jeeves whose brutal and bizarre history includes a long interlude in the United States, where he made the acquaintance of Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 hijacker.

Yet nothing in Casablanca is quite as odd as Shah's determination to carry on as usual. He and his imperturbable wife want servants, a big house in the sun and a bellyful of local color for their two toddlers. What they get is the local custom of dropping gobbets of raw chicken into the well to appease the jinns, and a bellyful of streptococcus. It's almost fatal, but they don't flush the key down the one working lavatory and get a cab to the airport. The thought briefly flits through Shah's mind, but it doesn't take hold. Instead, we are led on a darkly comic journey into the North African underworld, with the reckless but thoroughly well-connected Kamal as chaperone to Shah's dubious Dante.

The joke is that Shah, in spite of his Afghan heritage, in spite of his descent from the Prophet, is a man with a rationalist moral gyroscope. He doesn't believe in jinns, which everyone else seems to have like head lice. He's bothered by rats, he has servant trouble, he discovers the desperate shifts the poor make to survive -- the stealing, the sudden flashes of dignity, the mutual aid networks that underpin the black market, the medieval superstitions. Nothing works quite the way it works in a mature, liberal, democratic capitalist society. Everything has a price, but the routes to that price are devious and surprising. Every explanation raises more questions than it answers: Shah has baffling encounters and warily follows instructions he cannot understand. One night he is taken to a mysterious rendezvous in the desert and expects to be killed, but nothing happens. Another day he gives a lift to an old man who steals his car. Fifteen minutes later, the elderly thief drives back, apologizing that if he took the car for good, no one would ever give an old man a lift again.

It's in this sly side-step from common reality that the Shah persona comes into its own. He doesn't play it too knowingly, but he doesn't play himself for a fool, either. If Kamal is a Jeeves on amphetamines, Shah is no woolly-headed Wooster. He finds himself a very good fixer. He gets the house superbly done, with tiling and the tadelakt, so that he and his family can leave the single room they've occupied all year. And he finds out a lot about his grandfather, a widower who retired to Morocco because it was the one place he'd never traveled with his adored wife; he lived for years in Tangiers before being struck dead by a Coca-Cola delivery truck.

Shah writes an outrageously black comedy with the straightest of poker faces. And in some quiet alchemical way, he finds himself at peace with the guardians and the imam and the gangster down the road and the shanty dwellers on his doorstep and the bank manager at home. He's living there still. ยท

Jason Goodwin is the author of "Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire." His Ottoman mystery novel, "The Janissary Tree," will be published in May.

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