Do you dream of traveling to beautiful and exotic destinations that books, movies or television describe to you? Do the stories, colours and smells of an almost different world or era excite the hidden adventurer in your heart? I would plead guilty to all of this. I know that it is impossible for me to travel and see all that I want, but books have always been a wonderful way to explore places, their people and their lives. Sometimes, this is even better than actually seeing it for yourself because your imagination can conjure up something that reality cannot match!
What would Morocco say to you? I see souks (markets) with every nook ands cranny bursting at the seams with intricately worked carpets, metal and wooden artifacts and shop owners looking forward to a good bargain. I see noisy markets full of colour and aromas of exotic spices and street food. I see beautiful Islamic architecture and calligraphy in the mosques, homes and other buildings with beautifully carved and etched windows and doors. I see beautiful colours and patterns on the Moroccan zellige or decorated glazed tiles. I see sweetmeat vendors selling Morocco’s famed people enjoying mint tea and watching the world go by.
So when our Book Club chose to read The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah this month, I bought it. I love reading, but I am a bit picky about the books that I spend my money on and find a place for on my bookshelves.
How could I resist a book written by a man who is passionate (or crazy, you decide which) enough to uproot his wife, young daughter and a 3 week old baby from the dreary climes of England, so that they can “let his delusions of grandeur run wild” in a crumbling Caliph’s mansion in the middle of a shantytown in Casablanca?
A British travel writer of Afghan origin on his father’s side, Tahir Shah and his Indian wife find the thought of the warm sun in Morocco and “market stalls are a blaze of color, heaped with spices — paprika and turmeric, cinnamon, cumin and fenugreek”, irresistible after their life in dreary and grey London. Leaving the security of life at home and moving abroad, with a young family, wasn’t easy as family and friends thought he was “irresponsible, unfit to be a parent, a dreamer destined to be a failure.”
Memories of numerous family vacations in Morocco, the country’s rich culture and most specially the fact that his paternal grandfather spent his last years there was the motivation behind his almost impulsively buying a house in Casablanca. Not just any house but the Dar Khalifa, the Caliph’s house, with a vague idea of restoring it to its former glory.
There’s nothing romantic about Shah’s year in Casablanca. He finds the house he bought is almost uninhabitable by humans and completely taken over by Jinns. Jinns, central to the Moroccan way of life, are magical spirits who are mostly very devious, mischievous and especially love to live in empty houses and spaces.
So once the initial romance of living in Morocco wears off, we find Tahir Shah and his family having to deal with everyday problems of fixing the plumbing, unsuccessfully trying to renovate the Caliph’s house, desperately trying to get his employees to do their work, battle the devious ways of the Jinns who want to turn them out of the house and also managing his rather tenuous income!
Almost everything revolves around placating and pacifying the Jinns who are central to everything in Morocco. Many of the solutions that his advisors give him to manage his problems are strange and almost ludicrous, if one did not realize how seriously the advise was given.
The first night that he and his family spend in the house, they are warned against coming out of their room even to use the bathroom, because the Jinns would get them. He is advised to kill “some” sheep to placate the Jinns. On asking how many, he is told one sheep for each room. Given that Tahir Shah had bought a Caliph’s house, which would mean at least twenty rooms and a flock of sheep!
When he wonders if he should confront his neighbours who have paid to have his house deeds “disappear”, his first secretary warns him that his neighbour is Casablanca’s Godfather and would take away his children and send hiom their fingers by mail!
Another time he has just managed to unearth the papers/ deeds of the Caliph’s house, he finds he needs to local papers to prove residency. His second secretary suggests he gets married again, despite Shah’s protest that he is already very happily married!!
It would take living in Morocco, or even an African or Asian country, to understand or perhaps come to terms with the way of thinking and other idiosyncrasies that rule life in the Casablanca in Tahir Shah’s book. According to Shah’s unwelcome friends from England, the Caliph’s house and Casablanca were “Hell on earth and there’s shouting from the mosque all the time, the noise of dogs and donkeys, and the clang of hammers banging. There is no hot water either, and a garden filled with wild people. It certainly ensured they never visited again.
While his narrative style is quite entertaining, his frustrations with getting things to work along some semblance of a plan come through. All’s well that ends well, and Tahir Shah realizes his dream of living in Morocco with his family and bringing up his children there. Should you be in Casablanca, and have the time and money to spend there, you might just want to spend some time at Tahir Shah’s renovated Caliph’s House
Most of the food that is cooked and eaten in Morocco is meat based, since it is a Muslim country. Moroccan cuisine also uses a lot of local vegetables, lentils and spices that are very like those used in Indian cooking. Another thing that Morocco is famous for is its flatbreads which are used to mop up the gravies and soups. It is probably the same Arabic influence that is responsible for similar tandoori (earthern oven baked) flatbreads of north India.
I am new to Moroccan cooking and to me it is the tagine which always comes to mind first. The tagine is a special glazed earthernware cooking pot which lends its name to the mostly meat based preparation cooked in it. I do not have a tagine and I’m vegetarian so I decided to make a Moroccan style chickpea soup and a yeasted flatbread called K’sra (pronounced K’shra) to serve with it. The Soup is both gluten free and vegan while the flat bread is vegan.
Moroccan Style Chickpea Soup – This recipe for chickpea soup is from Rachel Allen, who’s “Bake!” I have enjoyed watching on television. A very simple recipe with ingredients which are available in the kitchen, this makes a hearty, comforting and very filling chickpea soup. I used dried chickpeas which I soaked overnight and pressure cooked the next day. I always cook more than I need, when I cook chickpeas, and then freeze the extra so that I have cooked chickpeas
when I want it.
K’sra (Moroccan Aniseed Flatbread) – According to the authors of the book from which this recipe comes, there is an easy way to find the bakeries in Fez, Morocco. Sometime around eleven in the morning, just follow the children who carry cloth covered trays on their heads. They would be carrying dough rounds to be baked in the neighbourhood bakery ovens. These children would return around noon to pick up and take home the baked bread in time for lunch.
This aniseed flavoured flatbread is soft and slightly chewy which pairs beautifully with spiced preparations. The texture makes it great for mopping up gravies and dunking into soup. You can even slit it with a knife and fill it to make a slightly different flavoured sandwich.