An Anglo-Afghan world traveler searches his adopted Moroccan homeland for traditional stories to pass on to his children.
Shah (The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca, 2006, etc.), a gentle-voiced travel writer with a restless spirit, opens the book with a bang. Strung up by his feet in a Pakistani torture chamber called “The Farm”—into which he was thrown while attempting to make a film about the lost treasure of the Mughals—he distracted himself with thoughts of telling bedtime stories to his small children. Timur and Ariane were safely ensconced at home in the family’s sprawling, possibly haunted compound, Dar Khalifa, the Caliph’s house, which sits on the edge of a Casablanca shantytown where the author had moved his family in a fit of nostalgia for his childhood vacation spot. Shah’s thoughts take us back to Morocco, and his personal quest for authentic personal storytelling, which led him across the country and ingratiated him to a host of colorful characters. On the homefront, he introduces a trio of superstitious groundskeepers and two maids who competed for the affections of his toddler son. Outside of Dar Khalifa’s walls, the cast grew even more diverse. In Moroccan culture, particularly for a man with Shah’s curious blend of Eastern and Western sensibilities, it seemed that friends were around every corner—in the Café Mabrook, where the author quickly became a regular, in the barbershop and even in a small hut behind a cemetery. It was these friendships that fueled the author’s mission, taking him not only through the Old Medina of Casablanca, but also to Fez, Marrakesh and even deep within the Sahara Desert. Spurred by the writings of 19th-century British explorer and polymath Richard Francis Burton—he even stayed in Burton’s favorite Tangier hotel—Shah continued to search for an authentic legacy for his son and daughter. The author’s cultural detail is impressive, and his relentless fascination with all things Moroccan is inspirational. But the storytelling theme never quite unifies his anecdotes. More disappointingly, he never regains the raw energy of the opening torture-chamber episode where, it seems, the real story resides.
Engaging prose and entertaining stories hampered by a lofty, overly cerebral premise.