Special to The Plain Dealer
When he was a boy, British travel writer Tahir Shah often visited sun-drenched Morocco. For Shah's father, son of an Afghan father and Scottish mother, it was a way to share with his children a bit of his Muslim heritage.
"Morocco had brought color to my sanitized English childhood, which was more usually cloaked in itchy gray flannel shirts and corduroy shorts, acted out beneath an overcast sky," says Shah in "The Caliph's House," his entertaining memoir of setting up housekeeping in a crumbling mansion on the sea outside Casablanca in 2001.
It seemed a natural segue to move there with his pregnant wife and small child -- almost like coming home. A home, it turned out, that was haunted.
Shah learned this secondhand from the three men he dubbed "the guardians," caretakers who saved the house from being devoured by the slums surrounding it during almost a decade of being uninhabited. "Jinns" love an empty house, they told him. Jinns, explains Shah, are spirits created by God from fire. In Moroccan culture, they seem to be everywhere, creating havoc and mischief -- and sometimes tragedy -- for the humans around them.
Shah dismissed their claims as superstition, but when he began to restore the dilapidated old place, mishaps piled upon one another. The cook cut herself, the gardener fell off a ladder, and the author was knocked off his feet by an electric shock. The guardians found the corpses of two cats, which appeared to have been ritually killed. A
dead hedgehog was found dangling by a string from a tree branch.
Shah persevered. Aided by his assistant, Kamal, a fast-talking, hard-drinking womanizer, the writer navigated the tricky channels of bureaucracy, corruption and black-market wrangling that are prerequisites to getting a job done in Morocco. Jinns went onto the back burner until Shah and his family became prostrate with illness. One of the guardians, it seemed, had been throwing half a chicken a day into the well to appease Qandisha, the most powerful Jinn-in-residence.
It was time for an exorcism. A cadre of 23 men and one woman, all professional exorcists, set up camp in the house and, over several days, purged it of the spirits. It was a happy ending for Shah, his family and the guardians, if not for the sacrificial goat.
Shah's writing is engaging, if sometimes too heavy with hyperbole. Through his Western/Eastern eye,
traditions are illuminated. Readers might find the exorcism gruesome and cruel, but to Shah it is a part, however discomfiting, of a culture he has come to embrace.
A shadow is cast by Sept. 11: Kamal describes being in New York that day and his subsequent questioning by police; Shah meets a Texan convert to Islam yearning for "a world without America"; and fundamentalist Muslims move into Shah's Moroccan neighborhood and strong-arm some of the locals toward their brand of Islam.
But Shah's account is far more cheery than not, a kind of "Under the Tuscan Sun" touched with the magic of "Arabian Nights."
Marchetti is a critic in Cleveland Heights.
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SOURCE: THE PLAIN DEALER (CLEVELAND, OHIO, USA), February 5, 2006
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