Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Almost exactly a year ago, British travel writer Tahir Shah released The Caliph's House: A Year In Casablanca, a book about his experiences with moving his family to Morocco, to a decrepit but expansive estate that came with its own problematic servants. He continues the tale with In Arabian Nights: A Caravan Of Moroccan Dreams, a rhapsodic series of anecdotes consciously modeled on One Thousand And One Arabian Nights, in that it presents stories nested inside other stories, raising "What happened then?" questions and then putting off answering them as it descends into a series of other nested stories. Sometimes the tactic is effective—Shah opens the book with a story about being held in a Pakistani torture facility and questioned as a suspected terrorist because of his film-related travels to Afghanistan, and he doesn't reveal how that story ended until midway through the book. At other times, just as in Arabian Nights itself, all the layered stories get in each other's way and become numbing.


But for Shah, the individual stories aren't always the point; he has larger goals, relating to storytelling as a whole, and how people, particularly in the West, have lost the importance of oral traditions in a world ruled by passive entertainments and an emphasis on novelty. Early on, Shah runs across the concept that each person has a story in their heart, which they need to find; going on a quest for his own, he hears Arabian Nights-like fables from many of the people he meets, including his own kids. At the same time, he reminisces about his father, who felt storytelling was a key to life, and he talks about the many reasons stories are important.

Sometimes, the constant harping on stories becomes oppressive and heavy-handed; the book feels more monomaniacal than fabulistic, in spite of Shah's emphasis on Morocco as a magical place where people believe in jinni and carry stories in their hearts. But his many colorful anecdotes—some explicitly fairy tales (or, more often, jinni tales), some couched as biography, though they're so outlandish that they read as fairy tales—are full of seductive exotica, and his philosophical ramblings on stories and why we tell them maintain a pleasantly mythical tang. He isn't always as incisive as he'd like to be about the storytelling roots of society, but he sure can weave a yarn.

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