Here, travel writer Shah sets out on a bold new journey across Morocco. As he wends his way through the labyrinthine medinas of Fez and Marrakesh, traverses the Sahara sands, and tastes the hospitality of ordinary Moroccans, Tahir collects a dazzling treasury of traditional stories, gleaned from the heritage of A Thousand and One Nights. The tales, recounted by a vivid cast of characters, reveal fragments of wisdom and an oriental way of thinking that is both enthralling and fresh. A link in the chain of scholars and teachers who have passed these stories down for centuries like a baton in a relay race, Shah reaches layers of culture that most visitors hardly realize exist, and eventually discovers the story living in his own heart. Along the way he describes the colors, characters, and the passion of Morocco, and comes to understand why it is such an enchanting land.--From publisher description.
The theme of "In Arabian Nights" is storytelling, thus the reference in the title to "Arabian Nights," aka "A Thousand and One Nights." "A Thousand and One Nights" also is referred to frequently in "In Arabian Nights," particularly a translation by Richard Burton (not the actor). What Tahir Shah chooses to tell us about "A Thousand and One Nights" and Burton's translation of the same crosses far into the "too much information" category for my taste.
As with "The Caliph's House," I'm glad I can experience Morocco vicariously via Shah's writing, because I don't want to live there, or even visit. It's clear that Shah loves living there, and it's also clear that he loves the people, and there is a lot to admire. I particularly admire the storytelling, although this seems to be under attack via Egyptian television. I also admire the hospitality of the Moroccan people. If you visit a home in Morocco and fall in love with something belonging to the host, a Persian rug, for example, you'd better not say so, because he will give it to you.
Shah, whose background combines East and West (Morocco is farther west geographically than Germany or Norway, but it's definitely in the East), seems perfectly comfortable in this culture. I think if I did travel to Casablanca and somehow found the Caliph's house and knocked on his door, he would not be able to turn me away.
I also think Shah must be a very good writer, because I don't think about the writing while I'm reading his books. He makes it look easy.
Here's an excerpt:
I placed the brogues on the counter. The cobbler took off his glasses, fumbled in a drawer, and fished for another pair. He put them on.
"These are very special shoes," he said. "Not like the rubbish people usually bring me."
I felt a twinge of pride run down my spine. "Can you resole them?"
The cobbler looked me in the eye. "You want rubber?"
The old craftsman's eyes welled with tears. He turned round to the grimy wall behind his bench and tugged down a sheet of russet brown leather hanging on a makeshift hook.
"I have been keeping this since before my son was born," he said. "Every day I have looked at it, wondering if its time would ever come."
"How old is your son now?" I asked.
The cobbler scratched his hat. "About fifty," he said.
This was a lovely, magical book. Shah, already acclaimed author of The Caliph's House, about restoring an old house in Morocco, is a wanderer - originally his family is from Pakistan but his father brought them out to the UK and then to North Africa, which he felt reflected his homeland's atmosphere and culture. Shah is a writer, thinker and film-maker, and it's this last that gets him into trouble, when he is arrested in the paranoia post-7/7 and thrown into a torture jail somewhere in Pakistan. As he languishes in jail, more and more prepared to die, he falls back on the stories his father used to tell him, ancient traditional folk tales such as the Arabian Nights, with shifting and deepening layers of meaning.
After managing to be set free, Shah sets about looking for these stories and their story-tellers around Morocco, searching for the story in his heart, trying to pass on the stories and their layers and importance to his small children, and, not least, trying to appease his wife as the Guardians of their house speak of jinns, ghosts and the need for all kinds of peculiar rituals.
The narrative is almost dreamy but also realistic and human. Shah presents his own fears and misses in comprehension, and paints a powerful and lively portrait of a beautiful country. Wonderful stuff and a highlight of the year already.
At the same time, somewhere not quite to the halfway mark, I started to wonder if Shah found anything at all he liked about Western culture. He seemed to always be giving ways that Moroccan culture (and to an extent, other Arab cultures) were superior to the rest of the world. Because Morocco is not his native country, it seemed a little like glorification of the purity of some primitive tribe he'd discovered.
The good points still outweighed the bad, though, and I do agree that stories have a special way to work on the mind which is often more effective than facts or lectures.
In the hands of a lesser storyteller this could be some thin stuff, but Shah is a master: funny, sympathetic, knowledgeable, subtle, sensitive and bold, he infuses all these threads with meaning and meanders across them with humility, grace, good humor and unflinching resolve to get to the heart of the matter.
It seemed a little formulaic in places, though. I'm willing to suppose that in my scant experience with this kind of travel writing I misunderstand the characteristics of the genre, but the hanging, episodic structure felt a little contrived. Still great fun to read and a very good book. As a special bonus you can learn a LOT about storytelling.