A Night in Dar Khalifa
Tahir Shah is a renowned travel writer and documentary maker. He was born into an Anglo – Afghan family of storytellers and adventurers and continues to follow this tradition. Eight years ago he and his family moved from London to a house called, Dar Khalifa, in Casablanca. With his wife Rachana and their children Ariane and Timur he wanted to escape from a stressful, urban life. In his book, ‘The Caliph’s house, a year in Casablanca’ a top ten best-seller, he explores and unravels Moroccan society. “Morocco is like a ball of string, everyday you get a little bit more of the string and it is so complicated at first “, Shah says.
For years I had longed to visit Morocco, I had always imagined its smells, sounds and most of all the richness of its colours and, even though it is so easily accessible nowadays, I didn’t actually get there until last summer.
Right after my first visit I went off to take part in New York Fashion week. I took Shah’s book ‘The Caliph’s house, a year in Casablanca’ with me. Waiting for my make up to be done his book took me to the very soul of Morocco – it opened my eyes and I discovered many aspects of Moroccan society which were unknown to me. I even read about things or matters I did not see or was able to see when I visited Morocco.
I wrote Tahir Shah a letter and he wrote back inviting me to come over to stay at Dar Khalifa, an invitation I immediately accepted.
I took off early one Monday morning. Tahir and his beautiful Indian wife Rachana came to pick me up from the airport. On our way to Dar Khalifa we passed a bidonville, a shanty town, located just outside the walls bordering Dar Khalifa. I saw children with big eyes and happy smiles playing outside, colourful laundry hanging on wooden racks criss cross throughout the shantytown, a girl carrying a wooden board covered by a dishtowel. Tahir, seeing what I was looking at, explained that she was taking dough to the communal oven to bake bread. Naughty boys were playing football on a field near a pile of waste. Cows, donkeys, sheep and goats walked in the alleys between the small but cleanly kept houses. A fire was burning somewhere further away – a smoke curtain reached up towards the sky.
Whenever I walked through the heavy wooden main entrance at Dar Khalifa I realized it was even more beautiful than I had imagined it to be after reading” The Caliph’s house.” ‘I hope you will enjoy Dar Khalifa and love it as much as we do’, Tahir said as he left me alone in the large living room. The guest room is located near the swimming pool in the centre of the garden, a blue wall bordering it – the same vibrant blue colour as Yves Saint Laurent’s house, ‘La Majorelle’, in Marrakech.
Around 3 o’ clock Tahir takes me to a junkyard in Casablanca where he loves to go every now and then to look for antiques. A labyrinth of narrow alleys unfolds as we walk in the covered part of the market where one can buy everything ranging from old bed frames, bathtubs, plastic mannequins, toiletpots, secondhand remote controls to modern paintings and Chinese porcelain. When the shadows become longer and the light changes we drive back and soon find ourselves again in the intimate atmosphere of Dar Khalifa. Rachana is preparing a delicious Indian meal, neighbours come over that night and a bottle of Pomérol wine I brought from Paris is emptied just before I can taste it. After a special night that I won’t easily forget I fall asleep with the silent bidonville surrounding us. In the distance I hear the sound of a donkey; this a silence I am not used to in my 40 square meter 6th floor apartment in Paris.
The next day I wake up early and decide to take a walk in the bidonville. Soon I am being followed by three naughty boys as I walk through the narrow alleys in between the small houses. Women are washing clothes and cats are warming their bellies in the early morning sun. I walk back to Dar Khalifa and I find Tahir in the kitchen. Tahir says that he would like me to see the fully functioning Medina in the heart of the city. ‘It is very different from the one in Marrakech’, he says. ‘It has not been spoiled by tourists, it shows life in Morocco as it is.
It doesn’t look beautiful and it doesn’t have nice stuff for sale, but I get things here like underpants and running shoes. I think it is great because it means real Moroccans are living here.ʼ
We arrive in a small square with a garden in the middle and surrounded by hotels and small shops as well as a men’s cafe. We take a seat inside the café at a small round table. Men sit in silence drinking coffee and smoking strongly smelling pipes . A man comes to our table to take the order. “Salam aleikum”, Tahir says,
I order a ‘thé a la menthe’ and Tahir orders a cafe noir, crude oil as he describes it himself. I get my notebook out and ask him some questions I have penned down.
SASKIA — What do you love so much about Morocco and the Moroccans?
TAHIR — Something I love about Morocco is that nobody is really obsessed by what anybody else is thinking about them. I think this is a very oriental thing, because it is certainly the same in India. In northern Europe we have this obsession with what people think about us, what the neighbour is going to think? And in Morocco you do not have that so much, you’ve got a sense that people have a very strong relationship with God and it is their big thing. They are not worrying what the neighbours are thinking, they are worrying about what God is maybe thinking. Look, I am not religious at all, but it is a very nice thing.
More importantly, and here is the big point, in Morocco you have a form of Islam which is the true form of Islam that is between you and God. And, you know, the people here are not fanatical, they are not at all radical. They drink alcohol and are very, very moderate and very tolerant
I’ve been in places like the Arabian Gulf and people there are a sort of religious nut cases; here they are not. Normal God-fearing Moroccans have got this completely different, much more old fashioned, view of life.,
Also, what I absolutely adore in Morocco, is that people are just living their life, like these guys; this is a guys’ cafe and they will come here and put in eight hours a day. In Europe if you would sit in a cafe for eight hours you would have this guilt trip. In Morocco eight hours in the cafe is like a good day’s work.
What I really love about Morocco as well, and I really appreciate this, is that you greet everyone with ‘Salam aleikum’; even when you go into an elevator you greet everyone. It is a great kind of leveling thing in society
S — What is your relationship with Morocco?
T — It is a kind of sweet story in a way. My grandfather met my grandmother in Scotland in the First World War and they went together to Afghanistan. My grandmother died of cancer in 1960 when she was only 59 years old and my grandfather, who was Afghan, was so broken when she died. She was this great character. It was such a sweet love affair and I have his diaries actually in which he wrote often; everyone called her Bobo, and he wrote in his diary “Bobo I am so happy that I lived today because it puts me one day closer to being with you.”
He moved to Morocco because it was the one place they had never travelled together so he had no memories of her. He moved to Tangier in the North. It was such a crazy time in the 1960s. There were people like Timothy Leary, who was promoting LSD, William Burrows, the writer from the beat generation. My grandfather stumbled into this whole scene. He would go around in an Afghan robe and he had a bodyguard to clear the road in front of him He was just this crazy sort of character.
I gave a talk a couple of months ago in Tangier. A lot of people came up to me and said they remembered him and I went to the house were he lived, this beautiful little villa, and the man who now owns it remembered me as a kid.
S — How old were you when you came here for the first time and what are your very first memories?
T — I was a baby and my earliest memories are the smell of orange blossom and the Essaouira wind. In Essaouira I was 4 and I remember it so vividly, the wind in winter I loved it and the seagulls and the waves hitting the walls and the cannons and going to Fez; it was like something out of the Arabian nights, seeing the storytellers. There was something so passionate about it that I wanted our kids to have a vibrant cultural colour. I felt so ashamed of the thought of bringing up my kids in London. I felt it was my duty to do better than that.
S — Were there moments that you regretted bringing your children to Morocco?
T — No, not for a second. We are very, very fortunate to be living in Dar Khalifa and I am very proud that they see every day that the bidonville is reality. And I tell them every day just by chance we are living in paradise but what we are living is a fantasy; the bidonville is the real world.
S — You have travelled your whole life, also with your parents, isn’t that right?
T — Yes, we were encouraged as kids to get out of our comfort zone. I can give you an example of my upbringing. Once my sister got a very prestigious job. She went to my father to try to get his blessing and this is what my father did; he turned around and said how dare you, you are a traitor to our family because we have always been people who changed the world, we don’t follow the pack. We were always rewarded as children if we did something other people were not doing.
S — Does this mentality, this state of mind, have something to do with being a traveller and if so what is a traveller to you?
T — My favourite line is: ‘much travel is needed before a raw man is ripened’ and really that was the sense we were given – that education is not about school; education is about meeting people, going to different places. I have taken our kids on a lot of trips; a couple of years ago I took them to Tibet and they had altitude sickness and discomfort, but it was great.
We go to India the whole time.
It is totally not interesting to take the kids to Ibiza.
S — So there is a huge difference between being a traveller and being a tourist
T — I am totally against tourism. I think tourism is a shocking, evil, dreadful, dishonourable thing and that is why I love the medina here where we walk around. Even Essaouira has a bit of tourism now, but nothing like Marrakech. Marrakech is like Disneyland. What I love about Casablanca – maybe the chief reason – is that I fit Casablanca like a hand fits a glove, because there is no tourism.
S — Do you think anyone can be a traveller?
T — Yes! One of the things that I got known for, as well as doing these documentaries and crazy books, was going on big quests. I wrote a book called, “The house of the tiger king”, searching for the greatest lost city in the Peruvian jungle. I had no background ,I had no credentials to search for this lost city, I just decided we would do it and I knew nothing about Inca culture;, I didn’t even read any books about it, I just bought some tickets and military equipment.
But the thing is anyone can go on a great journey, anyone can go on a big quest. I know a lot of travel writers and I know some explorers; it makes me so angry that they are kind of insisting on you having credentials. I think to have a great expedition you need to set yourself a really big goal and be really interested. I mean, look, we spent 17 weeks in the Peruvian jungle looking for this lost city walking up rivers until we all got dengue fever and the skin came off our feet, and if we had been tourists we would have gone home but we had this passion. You have got to have this crazy passion but also in life it is good not to think too much, but just to do it.
S — Have you always been able to do that?
T — Yes. For example moving to Casablanca, I didn’t ask anyone “what do you think, shall we do it or not” ? We just did it. I am such a believer in going through the back door. The way to achieve anything is to be different, I am sure that is the same in modeling as well.
S — Is it more complicated for female travelers?
T — I have got quite strong feelings on this. I meet women in the middle of nowhere sometimes and it is all about their mindset. I was in Ethiopia a few years ago in the middle of nowhere. I had a beaten up old car and a guy who was driving me; we saw two white girls on the side of the road and stopped ; they were Dutch and they were just hitchhiking through Ethiopia.
That is why I like the Dutch , because the Dutch don’t make a big thing about it. The thing about the Dutch is this practicality – they are not all worried. I think what it is all about, is being at ease.
S — Part of travel is always about departure and arrival, or coming home, how do you look at these aspects of traveling?
T — The best moment of a journey is the moment I come back through the door at Dar Khalifa. Something I am outspoken about is travel by airplane; sitting in seat 22B for ten hours is not travel – this really bothers me. These last couple of months I have done a lot of long distance flights and it is not travel
Travel is really about getting out of your comfort zone being miserable and eating food you don’t want to eat; the secret of travel is that there are all these moments that you never talk about when you come home. When you come home you say I was in Timbuktu but you never talk about all the lonely times that you have sat at a table like this. You never talk about the sad times when you didn’t know anyone.
S — What does home mean to you?
T — Home is the world to me. This is where Rachana and I really differ. Home for her is India, she left India when she was 19 and she still talks about going home.
To me, I love Dar Khalifa, I love being there, the kids are there and she is there, but I love being in a random place.
S — Yesterday when I was walking through the garden of Dar Khalifa I suddenly got this sensation of being at my grandmother’s house which was called ‘t Nijendal. For me this house is anchored in my soul, my memory. It feels like a deep place of feeling at home.
T — I had that with my childhood home. I still dream of this house.
It is the same feeling as with your grandmother’s house, it is the feeling of security. That is why I wanted our kids to have feeling for a house.
S — Do you feel more often an observer or a participant?
T — I love observing I could do it all day long, like in this cafe.
If you come from Europe you have got this feeling that the clock is ticking, but here people are just being, they are not just sitting and wasting time, they are fulfilling time. Everyone is here with a feeling that this is a valuable use of time. This is something that really appeals to me, which I really like. And a huge part of this is friendship. In Morocco friendship is a kind of sacred thing; you would do anything for a friend. It is a big thing in Morocco and throughout the rest of the world maybe but not in north America so much. I adore this idea that if you are a guy and you have got friends you can just be silent with them. You do not have to be talking and you can just be with them.
A lot of these guys are probably best friends and they come here every day; like these two guys over there;, they can be best friends, they are comfortable in each other’s silence and that is a beautiful thing. This best friend of mine who lives in Paris is one of the only people with whom I can be completely silent and we are not trying to impress each other. We are quite happy being in each other’s presence. Friendship is a wonderful thing
S — In Holland a lot of people do not think that highly of the Moroccans living there; why do you think that is the case?
T — Obviously a lot of the Dutch have a particular impression of the Moroccans, maybe because they don’t see the whole Moroccan culture. They just see fragments of it and a lot of the fragments aren’t appealing.
A thing that touched me greatly- and I wrote this once- I saw a beggar going from one fruit stall to the next and each of the stall keepers would spend a moment in choosing the very best orange, the very best apple, the very best pear and would give it to the beggar and one of the fruit sellers saw that I was looking because in our society you give the second rate things to beggars, the damaged fruit. And the guy said to me just because someone is begging does not mean he doesn’t deserve the best. It really touched me.
S — Yes, I remember that passage very well and after reading that it really stayed with me. There are a lot of people living on the street in the area where we live in Paris. I quite often buy them some food. But I remember one particular moment, I was standing in the supermarket with that passage in my head and I bought some bread and smoked salmon. I thought I can buy cheaper salmon or I can buy the very best.
T: I had the same thing at the weekend; the guy who is sitting there in the bidonville, the guy whom you said had a beautiful face, I wanted to give him a jacket. I have got so many jackets and they are in very good condition and very good quality jackets I have had forever. I noticed once that he had a jacket with holes in the elbows; at the weekend on Friday I went to my cupboard and I was wondering which jacket to give to him and I chose the best one . It was a jacket I really love. I told the kids if you ever give something you should give something that is of value to you. Then on Saturday we went to a lunch and there were some foreigners there and I mentioned it for some reason. and one of the foreigners, an American, said ” I am sure he will not appreciate it”. I got really irritated by that because a) I am sure he did appreciate it and b) what does it matter?
That is how we were brought up in Afghanistan ; if you give a gift you give it anonymously.
Something that I love in Morocco is that it is a country which has the right ideals. the French use the word ” sensible” for it . People here are sensitive.
OK, for example yesterday, there was a girl throwing up on the street and I happened to have water. It reminded me that Rachana and I were in the railway station in Rabat a couple of months ago and we saw a really old guy being carried out of a taxi by his son and he was close to death and suddenly he threw up everywhere.
Maybe in Europe people look away because they are embarrassed but I remember that in this cafe the waiter saw it and he rushed out with a bottle of water and at the same time a guy driving a truck filled with water bottles saw it and he stopped his truck and took out one of the bottles and gave it to him.
And I thought: that is Morocco. It is a very sweet thing to help a stranger.
We pay for our drinks and continue our stroll through the medina. I have his words imprinted on my mind: travel is very much about opening you heart and being in the present moment and not thinking too much.
It is already time for me to leave. When I drive off in the taxi I look through the back window of the taxi. Tahir, Rachana, Timur, Ariane with the dog Flora are waving goodbye just like my grandmother used to do when I left her house ‘t Nijendal.