on reader response theory: Tahir Shah’s “The Caliph’s House”


my fifth read for 2017, and my first non-ebook!

Whenever I read a memoir like this, it is always in the back of my mind – how would this writer have described Brunei if he had come across similar cultural quirks? Would there have been that same generosity of spirit, that willingness to step across the cultural divide and try to understand? Would there have been that same indulgent forbearance?

Which of the characters in this story would I have been? Would I have been the “native saint” – the old man and his wise conversation -; or the quirky, money-poor, culture-rich primitive; or the local girl yearning for the freedom of the West; or the belligerent, antagonistic intelligentsia; or the cunning, mildly dishonest ally?

This was a really fun memoir about a British (Anglo-Afghan – this is relevant to the story and how the narrator navigates local relationships) man who buys a palace in Morocco and spends a year renovating it so he can live in it with his family. It’s funny, warm, flamboyant – it’s full of heart and jinn, and has an unexpected edge, when it slips over the budding fanatic cells in Morocco, the simmering resentment there is of the West, the true meaning of lawlessness and corruption. It captures perfectly the inherent weirdness of stepping into another country, another culture.

Much recommended. I always wonder in memoirs like this as much about the things that are left out, as the things that are put in (In this case, the wife, and the very interesting back stories of Shah’s two assistants he hires to help him understand Moroccan culture). Interested in looking at some of his fiction next!


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