Saturday, 12 May 2012

In Arabian Nights: In Search of Morocco through its stories and storytellers by Tahir Shah

I had never heard of this book before I pulled it off the shelf in the library. One of the books I have chosen for the Back To The Classics Challenge is Arabian Nights, and it seemed like this book would be a good one to read in preparation for it. It was a lucky choice - I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tahir Shah is a writer and film maker who lives with his young family in Morocco. His father was a writer who was very interested in the stories which are handed down through the generations. He believed that they are of importance, not just for their entertainment value, but also as educational tools, teaching us about ourselves, and the culture we live in.

He used to say that the great collections of stories from the East were like encyclopedias, storehouses of wisdom and knowledge ready to be studied, to be appreciated and cherished. To him, stories represented much more than mere entertainment. He saw them as complex psychological documents, forming a body of knowledge that had been collected and refined since the dawn of humanity and, more often than not, passed down by word of mouth.

Morocco is a story-rich society and Tahir Shah takes up the challenge of rooting out the stories and the storytellers, and discovering if they have as much value today as they had in the past.

The book is written in the way the Arabian Nights is written, with the stories overlapping and interlinking. Shah is a very personable writer, he throws himself into his quest and seems very trusting of everyone he meets. He admits that he is a person who is easily ensnared into madcap schemes. What starts as a journey of academic discovery becomes more personal when he meets Dr Mehdi, a retired surgeon who tells him;

"The Berbers believe that when people are born, they are born with a story inside them, locked in their heart. It looks after them, protects them." Dr Mehdi flicked the hood of the jelaba down onto his neck, and sipped his coffee. "Their task is to search for their story," he said, "to look for it in everything they do."

Shah's search introduces him to many fascinating characters, mainly of the older generation who still remember the old way of life. I loved reading this book. My library stocks Shah's previous book, The Caliph's House, and I will definitely be borrowing it in the near future.