A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco by Suzanna Clarke

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A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco by Suzanna Clarke

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Restoring a small courtyard house to its former glory takes much longer, and much more money, than envisaged. The difficulties are everything you'd imagine of a semi-mediaeval town operating on modern terms, but worth the friendships and culture into which the author and her husband slowly embed themselves. Not a lyric reflection of the experience, but a simple report from which insight has to be extracted by the reader.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Ebury Press
ISBN: 978-0091925222

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Perhaps it's a little unfair to come to A House in Fez still inspired by the storytelling of Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights, because this is a very different take on Morocco, aimed (as a book) no doubt at a very different market, but reading the two in quick succession it is hard to avoid comparison.

Let me say then, in my defence and in Clarke's, that books are very personal things not only to the writer but to the reader and what speaks to us is always coloured by what has gone before. I am convinced that had I not read Shah, I would have enjoyed Clarke much more than I did. In that light my recommendation would be: if you have not read either, read this one first.

Suzanna Clarke is currently arts editor of a major Australian newspaper. Born in New Zealand and spending a peripatetic childhood in Australia before decanting to a Welsh commune, an Amsterdam squat and a Buddhist monastery in Nepal, she is by trade a photo-journalist. In context, the idea of buying a house to renovate in Morocco while living and working in Australia doesn't sound quite so far-fetched. Add in a husband who works as a radio presenter/journalist with family spread across the globe to Ireland and it starts to make sense.

Suzanna and Sandy are global citizens. Working in the media clearly indicates a sense of curiosity and adventure, a willingness to engage with people on all levels. Their travels and life history give them a perspective on the world most of us can only aspire to.

That this was a crazy notion, even by their standards, speaks of the honesty of the book and the degree to which the pair entered upon the escapade with their eyes open. They made the right contacts, set about learning how to make more of them. Sandy set about learning the local variation of Arabic: Darija; while Suzanna relied for a long-time on half-forgotten schoolgirl French and charades…and the services of a translator.

Having nothing in common with 'Arabian Nights' other than the country, A House in Fez is much more closely related to Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence – the entire story focussing as it does on the ex-pats' attempts to come to terms with local customs, archaic laws, unyielding bureaucracy (which occasionally yields in the most inexplicable but helpful fashion), builders with notions of their own, plumbers who fail to arrive, and the slow, painful, process of restoring an ancient property to its former glory – whilst insisting upon modernity in the kitchen and the bathroom (albeit sympathetically rendered, obviously).

Clarke fails to extract the same degree of humour from the situation as I remember Mayle doing all those years ago, but one suspects this is largely because once they finally have their team assembled they manage to keep them and develop real friendships with them based upon a mutual respect. Suzanna & Sandy have a very definite empathy for the place they are adopting, accepting the local customs (& hang the budget!) until the budget can't be stretched any further and the western business brain flashes the rip-off sign. They learn to deal with bureaucracy the Moroccan way: do what you're required to do, up to a point. The point being that boundary at which you decide either to play them at their own game by mounting a counter-challenge – which they occasionally do with some success – or by simply walking away and waiting to see what happens. Well, if the tax bill is not only not in your name, but not even in that of your predecessors, and hasn't been paid for nearly a decade…who knows, you might be dead before the man comes knocking at the door.

Clearly there is none of the romance that so enthralled me in Shah's book, and as result I did find Clarke's style a little difficult to engage with. Far from being any kind of reflection on the experience it is pure reportage. Possibly none the worse for that, just not to my particular taste. The potted history of Fez and the country in general I found a little too potted and felt it added little to the overall composition.

The balance however is in the portrait of modern Morocco. The contradictions of modern Fez are well-captured in discussions of the incomers risking the destruction that which they've come to enjoy, the slow movement of the Moroccans themselves into a modern world where a woman will defy her father to reject a marriage in favour of continuing her education, but then visits a witch to determine what she should do about her married lover. It is an affectionate portrait of an intensely Muslim country, still seeking to distance itself from political Islamism of the kind that has an eye on world-domination…but one which incidentally clearly shows the truth of the aphorism if you want to change the world, educate the women. The friends that Suzanna makes are the personification of a world in shift, and it is most evident in the women. The author herself makes no political points; she simply offers the anecdotes to stand alone. It is a picture of a place where you can connect your home to the internet – but your lime plaster will be delivered by donkeys. A place so rooted in neighbourliness that there's nothing odd about asking a stranger if they'd like you to take their bread to the bakery, but where an artisan risks being mugged on the way home for the most meagre of tools.

Clarke failed to totally engage me in the place or the project - but there's still a part of me that envies her the adventure and I did learn a thing or too about the country, its architecture and its people.

Interesting, rather than enthralling.

The original in the genre, Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, is still one of the best or for a more romantic view of Morocco try Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights.

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