Tuesday, April 15, 2008

In Arabian Nights

One of my favorite travel writers is Tahir Shah (In Search of King Solomon's Mines), who in 2006 published an account of his home-buying experience in Morocco (The Caliph's House). His experiences were very similar to those in Peter Mayle's classic Year in Provence: good-natured yet superstitious locals slyly taking advantage of the poor chump with the crumbling monstrosity - plumbers, carpenters, grocers, electricians, and in Shah's case, servants. His new book continues with anecdotes of Moroccan living, but with a much deeper and philosophical tone. This might be accounted for by the fact that he spent 2 weeks being tortured by the Pakistani police while trying to film a documentary on Afghanistan (an episode he discusses periodically in Arabian Nights). Going through a mock execution would be enough to rearrange anyone's priorities, but even though this book is less light-hearted than his previous works, it is still very entertaining and well written. He exposes us to a side of North Africa that few outsiders get to see and the stories he relates - often told to him by his Moroccan neighbors - highlight ethnic differences, relationships between the sexes, classism and snobbery, and a yearning for the past. He also brings up some interesting points about personal destiny and identity, but he never gets depressing or boring. A fascinating story in the hands of a talented writer is always a treat.

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