Tahir Shah's The Caliph's House, describing his first year in Casablanca, was hailed by critics and compared to such travel classics as A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun. Now Shah takes us deeper into the heart of this exotic and magical land to uncover mysteries that have been hidden from Western eyes for centuries....
In this entertaining and penetrating book, Tahir sets out on a bold new journey across Morocco that becomes an adventure worthy of the mythical Arabian Nights.
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 master masons who labor only at night to Sufi wise men who write for soap operas, and Tuareg guides afflicted by reality TV, In Arabian Nights takes us on an unforgettable journey, shining a light on facets of a society that are normally left in darkness.
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December 25, 2007
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Excerpt from In Arabian Nights by Tahir Shah
Be in the world, but not of the world.--Arab Proverb
The torture room was ready for use. There were harnesses for hanging the prisoners upside down, rows of sharp-edged batons, and smelling salts, used syringes filled with dark liquids and worn leather straps, tourniquets, clamps, pliers, and equipment for smashing the feet. On the floor there was a central drain, and on the walls and every surface, dried blood-plenty of it. I was manacled, hands pushed high up my back, stripped almost naked, with a military-issue blindfold tight over my face. I had been in the torture chamber every night for a week, interrogated hour after hour on why I had come to Pakistan.
All I could do was tell the truth: that I was traveling through en route from India to Afghanistan, where I was planning to make a documentary about the lost treasure of the Mughals. My film crew and I had been arrested on a residential street, and taken to the secret torture installation known by the jailers as "The Farm."
I tried to explain to the military interrogator that we were innocent of any crime. But for the military police of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, a British citizen with a Muslim name, coming overland from an enemy state-India-set off all the alarms.
Through nights of blindfolded interrogation, with the screams of other prisoners forming an ever-present backdrop to life in limbo, I answered the same questions again and again: What was the real purpose of my journey? What did I know of Al-Qaeda bases across the border in Afghanistan and even, why was I married to an Indian? It was only after the first week that the blindfolds were removed and, as my eyes adjusted to the blaring interrogation lamps, I caught my first burnt-out glimpse of the torture room.
The interrogations took place at night, although day and night were much the same at The Farm. The strip-light high on the ceiling of my cell was never turned off. I would crouch there, waiting for the sound of keys and for the thud of feet pacing over stone. That meant they were coming for me again. I would brace myself, say a prayer, and try to clear my mind. A clear mind is a calm one.
The keys would jingle once more and the bars to my cell would swing open just enough for a hand to reach through and grab me.
First the blindfold and then the manacles.
Shut out the light, and your other senses compensate. I could hear the muffled screeches of a prisoner being tortured in the parallel block and taste the dust out in the fields on my tongue.
Most of the time, I squatted in my cell, learning to be alone. Get locked up in solitary in a foreign land, with the threat of immediate execution hanging over you, a blade dangling from a thread, and you try to pass the time by forgetting where you are.
First I read the graffiti on the walls. Then I read it again, and again, until I was half-mad. Pens and paper were forbidden, but previous inmates had used their ingenuity. They had scrawled slogans in their own blood and excrement. I found myself desperate to make sense of others' madness. Then I knelt on the cement floor and slowed my breathing, even though I was so scared words could not describe the fear.
Real terror is a crippling experience. You sweat so much that your skin goes all wrinkly like when you've been in the bath all afternoon. And then the scent of your sweat changes. It smells like cat pee, no doubt from the adrenaline. However hard you wash, it won't come off. It smothers you, as your muscles become frozen with acid and your mind paralyzed by despair.
The only hope of staying sane was to think of my life, the life that had become separated from me, and to imagine that I was stepping into it again . . . into the dream that, until so recently, had been my reality.
The white walls of my cell were a kind of silver screen on which I projected the Paradise to which I longed to return. The love for that home and all within washed out the white walls, the blood-graffiti, and the stink of fear. And the more I feared, the more I forced myself to think of my adopted Moroccan home, Dar Khalifa, the Caliph's House.
There were courtyards brimming with fountains and birdsong, and gardens in which Timur and Ariane, my little son and daughter, played with their tortoises and their kites. There was bright summer sunlight, and fruit trees, and the sound of my wife, Rachana's, voice, calling the children in to lunch. And there were lemon-colored butterflies, scarlet red hibiscus flowers, blazing bougainvillea, and the hum of bumblebees dancing through the honeysuckle.
Hour after hour I would watch my memories screened across the blank walls. I would be blinded by the colors, and glimpse in sharp detail the lives we had created for ourselves on the edge of Casablanca. With my future now in the balance, all I could do was to pray. Pray that I might be reunited with that life, a melodious routine of innocence interleaved with gentle calamity.