The A Year in ______ genre of travel writing is about as stale as a Dunkin’ donut by late afternoon, so don’t fall into the trap of believing that Tahir Shah’s The Caliph’s House is part of this tired and lifeless class of travel books. Shah, unlike Elizabeth Gilbert- the super-rich author of a self-absorbed and vacuous travel narrative called Eat, Love, and Pray, didn’t just move to Morrocco for a year as part of a contrived plot to sell a book. He bought a house, and, only weeks after having a child, picked up his family and moved them to Casablanca for good. (You can see some photos of the house here: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/30/garden/30casablanca.html?_r=1&oref=slogin)
The Caliph’s House is a rockin’ good time. The best travel narratives allow us to live through someone else’s hellishly bad time, and Shah’s book gives us a vivid, ring-side seat for some savagely funny adventures, as he struggles to overcome a crew of greedy, ghost-obsessed caretakers, a series of rapacious builders and assistants, unwelcome visitors from England, and a neighborhood Mafioso that appears to be scheming to steal his house. Shahs’s lucid narrative, biting sarcasm and knack for storytelling make every page of this book a sheer joy to treasure. In meeting the cast of characters Shah encounters in the book, one gets a clearer picture of the Moroccan character and culture than one could ever develop from a traditional history or travel book. Shah constantly keeps the reader wanting more, by divulging tantalizing bits of stories and then returning to unfinished plot lines later in the book.