Reading Challenges

January 4, 2011

Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights

In preparation for my forthcoming trip to Morocco, I've been hunting down books set in Morocco or written by local authors.  Tahir Shah, although not Moroccan himself, spent a portion of his childhood there, and as an adult, decided to relocate his entire family to Casablanca.  The author's first book The Caliph's House details the family's trials and tribulations as they settle into their new life and restore an historic home in Casablanca.  In Arabian Nights focuses on Morocco's storytelling legacy and how oral transmission has been a key component of Moroccan culture and education through the ages.  The author learns of the Berber tradition of searching for the story within your heart and sets out to discover just that.  While doing so, readers are introduced to a colorful cast of real-life characters through Shah's daily outings in Casablanca, as well as several trips across Morocco.  His adventures are endless: one epic favor for a friend turns into a desert trek to find just the right kind of salt for a wedding blessing, while a run to Marrakech has Shah in search of an elderly "raconteur" (live storyteller) to bring back to Casablanca in order to inspire an oral renaissance, and finally, Fès reveals the historic house of storytellers.

Traditional stories from The One Thousand and One Nights, commonly known in English as The Arabian Nights, are interwoven between Shah's observations of daily life and his more dramatic escapades.  Among the elderly that Shah unexpectedly comes into contact with (a cobbler in Casablanca who nearly cries when he sees shoes of quality, a shopkeeper in Marrakech whose valuable objects are all free, but a story must be bought...), stories are valuable currency, and the eclectic group of friends that Shah draws around him often recount their personally beloved tale.

Overall, In Arabian Nights is an entertaining read, full of humor, and instills an appreciation of the Moroccan storytelling tradition that imparts knowledge and wisdom among its listeners.  That being said, the book also sadly falls into the category of pitting Old World (storytelling) versus New World (technology--in this case even books) and widsom of the East versus wisdom that has been lost in the West.  I find these divisive battles tiresome and irrelevant.  I'm always weary of a sentence that begins We in the West... Already, the language of "they" and "we" categorizes people and sets us on a downward slope.  I prefer to think of us all as simply human, and while we have our differences (many of which are beautiful and to be celebrated), our commonalities far outweigh what makes us unique.  In any case, the author doesn't really consider that there are various ways to tell a story and that one path needn't be superior to another.  The concept of "wisdom that has been lost in the West, but remains in the East" strikes me as fanciful and symptomatic of Westerners who are convinced that something is missing from their lives and that all answers point elsewhere.  In today's international world, we are fortunate to pick and choose, assimilating knowledge and culture from the four corners of the globe as needed or desired.  I certainly admire the stories of Morocco and plan to learn more about them, but I needn't dismiss books, films, or the internet to do so: I simply add them to my arsenal of information, learning and entertainment.  Creating a world with space for all aspects of  cultural wisdom to coexist is far more productive and enriching than blaming one aspect of culture for another's demise.

Despite this small criticism, In Arabian Nights is an inviting account of Morocco's rich culture and recommendable.  The author's official website is HERE

Tahir Shah introduces his adopted city of Casablanca in this video: HERE

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