In Arabian Nights by Tahir Shah

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In Arabian Nights by Tahir Shah

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Category: Travel
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Now settled in Morocco, Tahir Shah goes back to the stories of his childhood, seeks out the similar tales of his new homeland and searches after the story in his own heart. In doing so, he discovers modern Morocco and its past...and more importantly he shares with us the fundamental importance of stories. Buy it... there are tales within to be learned by heart.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0385612074

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Once upon a time there was a traveller who travelled through Pakistan to visit far Afghanistan, where he would seek out the lost treasure of the Mughals. Sadly the traveller had an English passport and a Muslim name, and he was travelling from one enemy state to another. His story was not believed.

He was arrested, imprisoned, tortured.

Fortunately for the traveller, he had been brought up by a story-teller and his mind was full of wondrous tales that could sustain him through the darkest hours.

More fortunately one jailer allowed the tortured man a phone message…and the truth of his words became known and he was freed.

This tale isn't about capture and torture. It is about the stories. The stories and memories that sustained Tahir Shah during his imprisonment, and the ones he made and discovered afterwards and about the very nature of story itself.

Shah was born to be a story-teller. Of Anglo-Afghan descent he spent much of his childhood in Tunbridge Wells – but holidays, which weren't holidays, but rather expeditions with a definite purpose took his impressionable childhood mind through the glories of the Middle East and North Africa. His father, the writer Idries Shah, held the story in great reverence, as his fathers had before him and passed the baton on to Tahir, who has accepted it with aplomb.

If you were ever to envy a child, then surely Tahir Shah and his sisters would be the cause. No doubt they had their trials and tribulations, but their upbringing is straight out of the storybooks I read when I was their age…full of magic and adventure and far-away places.

Envy isn't what Tahir's writing provokes however. Instead you reach the end of In Arabian Nights with a profound gratitude for everything that brought him to the writing of it. I collect stories wherever I go. Being western and not the bravest of conversationalists, I tend to collect them in written form. So while I have tales from Nepal, Bhutan, the Raramuri of northern Mexico, Scotland… rarely since my own childhood have a sat and listened to a storyteller. Thanks to Shah, I appreciate the difference, and know that I must change my approach. Though I will still collect the written word.

Just as I will keep and treasure this collection… and buy further copies to pass on to friends who have little ones who should hear these tales.

For a collection is what this really is. Subtitled, in search of Morocco through its stories and storytellers, In Arabian Nights is primarily a collection of what we might call 'fairy tales'. Sadly, we might also forget that the 'fairy' epithet was originally to mark their magical nature and not to denigrate them. So call them folk-tales, or teaching stories.

It is hard to count how many stories there are. The chapter headings are Arab proverbs, which are stories in themselves albeit encapsulated in a line or two, or the shorter tales of Joha (a folk hero known by many names throughout the Arab world as a wise fool). Tales told in part or in full include:

- The Persian king who grew fatter and fatter

- The story of the Indian bird

- The Kingdom of the Horse and the Snake

- The Water of Paradise

- The Tale of Mushkil Gusha

- The Tale of Melon City

- The Tale of Maruf the Tailor

And of course there is the story in the heart of the author, which he seeks.

Of course it is not possible to speak of the Arabs and the power of the story with mentioning the Thousand and One Nights. He tells the story of the stories…how there came to be 1001 Nights, and some of the tales from within that collection. More, he explores the collection and its first English translation (by Richard Burton) which only escaped the censors by being available only by private subscription and listed as a work of anthropology, such was its scurrilous nature. We all know something of these tales, but mostly only through the child-like renditions handed down through film and pantomime. Shah's words are inspiration to go back to the source. Teaching is not only for children.

Against all of these are the stories from Shah's own life: his memories of growing up and being taught through story; his more recent anecdotes of life in the Dar Khalifa with messages of their own; the ghost stories and superstitions of his neighbours in Casablanca; his dreams; his travels searching for the story in his heart after the old Berber tradition; the stories of those he meets along the way; snippets from the Qur'an and the life of the prophets; the make-believe of his young children…

Life itself, he seems to tell us, is nothing more than the creation of yet one more story. And every story has something to teach us, if we will only sit comfortably and listen while the storyteller begins.

All is told with beautiful charm. Though much of the wrapping of the folk-tales is for adult sensibilities, the stories themselves should be re-told to your little-ones, and the whole is told with the same gentility.

To read Shah is to be soothed, to find a little goodness in the world. This is the side of the Muslim world where 'honour' has nothing to do with killing, and everything to do with hospitality. Where the favour-network is not looked upon with the same cynicism as western eyes would shroud it in. Shah allows it to stand without defence, for it needs none. It is what it is and what it has been since before the days of religion. It is not perfect, for what upon the earth is, but it would not hurt us to look again at the traditions that are as distorted by violence and hatred as are those of our cultures and faiths.

His descriptions of Casablanca and Marrakech and Fez and hills and deserts beyond, are all that the best travel-writers could aspire to. He sees beauty with the eyes of a child, and acknowledges the rough edges of travel with a weary acceptance of the seasoned wanderer. His journey into the distant past beyond history into fable, brings him hard up against modern Morocco, where the Casa Trash shun the shanty-town dwellers while knowing nothing about them, where those same cash-poor people aspire to indoor bathrooms, but don't really truly want the high-rise that will replace their mazes of streets and webs of friendships, but will take it when it comes, with a mixture of joy and resignation. The modern Morocco where storytellers no longer make a living, but the glory days are still remembered in cafés that remember names like Camus, Saint-Expúry and Piaf. Where Saharan salt is scattered for a wedding blessing and birthday cakes must have Barbie dolls.

The true achievement is to make it all work as a continuum, each element just one more tiny piece of the glorious mosaic.

Story-telling has survived thus far. It has been changed by the advent of the written word, changed again by film, television, the internet… it will be changed again and again in ways we cannot yet imagine. But it still happens... and there is (Shah tries to tell us) still space for it to happen as it first did… by word of mouth.

Possibly the most uplifting book I've read in a long time. One to be treasured…and like all treasures: to be passed on.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For sense of place and connection try Falling Palace - or for the importance of teaching stories wander through the children's fiction section and pick any at random, but don't miss The Thousand Nights and One Night by David Walser.

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Manouche said:

This review has inspired me to steal, borrow or purchase this book hopefully tomorrow. Morocco has a magical element of the past and I can’t wait to read this book of stories.