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Authors: Tahir Shah

In Arabian Nights

BOOK: In Arabian Nights
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In search of Morocco,
through its stories and storytellers


This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

ISBN 9781407040523

Version 1.0

61–63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA
A Random House Group Company

First published in Great Britain
in 2008 by Doubleday
an imprint of Transworld Publishers

Copyright © Tahir Shah 2008
Illustrations by Laetitia Bermejo
Map by Michael Greer

Tahir Shah has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs
and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library.

ISBN: 9781407040523

Version 1.0

This electronic book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

Addresses for Random House Group Ltd companies outside the UK
can be found at:
The Random House Group Ltd Reg. No. 954009

2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

This book is for my aunt Amina Shah,
Queen of the Storytellers.

Here we are, all of us: in a dream-caravan.
A caravan, but a dream – a dream, but a caravan.
And we know which are the dreams.
Therein lies the hope.

Sheikh Bahaudin

Nasrudin was sent by the king to find the most foolish man in
the land and bring him to the palace as court jester. The mulla
travelled to each town and village in turn, but could not find a
man stupid enough for the job. Finally, he returned alone.

'Have you located the greatest idiot in our kingdom?' asked
the monarch.

'Yes,' replied Nasrudin, 'but he is too busy looking for fools
to take the job.'

The World of Nasrudin
by Idries Shah


Be in the world, but not of the world.

Arab proverb


harnesses for hanging the prisoners upside-down, rows of sharp-edged
batons, and smelling salts, used syringes filled with dark
liquids and worn leather straps, tourniquets, clamps, pliers, and
equipment for smashing the feet. On the floor there was a central
drain, and on the walls and every surface, dried blood – plenty of
it. I was manacled, hands pushed high up my back, stripped almost
naked, with a military-issue blindfold tight over my face. I had
been in the torture chamber every night for a week, interrogated
hour after hour on why I had come to Pakistan.

All I could do was tell the truth: that I was travelling through
en route from India to Afghanistan, where I was planning to
make a documentary about the lost treasure of the Mughals. My
film crew and I had been arrested on a residential street and
taken to the secret torture installation known by the jailers as
'The Farm'.

I tried to explain to the military interrogator that we were
innocent of any crime. But for the military police of Pakistan's
North West Frontier Province, a British citizen with a Muslim
name, coming overland from an enemy state – India – set off all
the alarms.

Through nights of blindfolded interrogation, with the
screams of other prisoners forming an ever-present backdrop to
life in limbo, I answered the same questions again and again:
What was the real purpose of your journey? What do you know
of Al-Qaeda bases across the border in Afghanistan? And, even:
Why are you married to an Indian? It was only after the first
week that the blindfolds were removed and, as my eyes adjusted
to the blaring interrogation lamps, I caught my first burnt-out
glimpse of the torture room.

The interrogations took place only at night, although day and
night were much the same at The Farm. The strip-light high on
the ceiling of my cell was never turned off. I would crouch there,
waiting for the sound of keys and for the thud of feet pacing over
stone. That meant they were coming for me again. I would brace
myself, say a prayer and try to clear my mind. A clear mind is a
calm one.

The keys would jingle once more and the bars to my cell
would swing open just enough for a hand to reach through and
grab me.

First the blindfold and then the manacles.

Shut out the light, and your other senses compensate. I could
hear the muffled screeches of a prisoner being tortured in the
parallel block and taste on my tongue the dust out in the fields.

Most of the time, I squatted in my cell, learning to be alone.
Get locked up in solitary in a foreign land, with the threat of
immediate execution hanging over you, a blade dangling from a
thread, and you try to pass the time by forgetting where you

First I read the graffiti on the walls. Then I read it again, and
again, until I was half-mad. Pens and paper were forbidden, but
previous inmates had used their ingenuity. They had scrawled
slogans in their own blood and excrement. I found myself
desperate to make sense of others' madness. Then I knelt on the
cement floor and slowed my breathing, even though I was so
scared words could not describe the fear.

Real terror is a crippling experience. You sweat so much that
your skin goes all wrinkly like when you've been in the bath all
afternoon. And then the scent of your sweat changes. It smells
like cat pee, no doubt from the adrenalin. However hard you
wash, it won't come off. It smothers you, as your muscles become
frozen with acid and your mind paralysed by despair.

The only hope of staying sane was to think of my life, the life
that had become separated from me, and to imagine that I was
stepping into it again . . . into the dream that, until so recently,
had been my reality.

The white walls of my cell were a kind of silver screen on
which I projected the Paradise I longed to return to. The love for
that home and all within washed out the white walls, the blood-graffiti
and the stink of fear. And the more I feared, the more I
forced myself to think of my adopted Moroccan home, Dar
Khalifa, the Caliph's House.

There were courtyards brimming with fountains and birdsong,
and gardens in which Timur and Ariane, my little son and
daughter, played with their tortoises and their kites. There was
bright summer sunlight, and fruit trees, and the voice of my
wife, Rachana, calling the children in to lunch. And there were
lemon-coloured butterflies, scarlet red hibiscus flowers, blazing
bougainvillea and the hum of bumblebees dancing through the

Hour after hour I would watch my memories screened across
the blank walls. I would be blinded by the colours, and glimpse
in sharp detail the lives we had created for ourselves on the edge
of Casablanca. With my future now in the balance, all I could do
was pray. Pray that I might be reunited with that life, a melodious
routine of innocence, interleaved with gentle calamity.

As the days and nights in solitary passed, I moved through the
labyrinth of my memories. I set myself the task of finding every
memory, every fragment of recollection.

They began with my childhood, and with the first moment I
ever set foot on Moroccan soil.

The ferry had taken us from southern Spain, across the Strait
of Gibraltar. It was the early seventies. Tucked up in the northwest
corner of Africa, Tangier was a
of life like none
other. There were beatniks and tie-dyed hippies, drug dealers
and draft dodgers, writers, poets, fugitives and philosophers.
They were all united in a swirling stew of humanity. I was only
five years old, but I can remember it crystal clear, a world I could
never hope to understand. It was scented with orange blossom,
illuminated by sunshine so bright that I had to squint.

My father, who was from Afghanistan, had been unable to take
my sisters and me to his homeland. It was too dangerous. So he
brought us on frequent journeys to Morocco instead. I suppose it
was a kind of Oriental logic. The two countries are remarkably
similar, he would say: dramatic landscapes, mountain and desert, a
tribal society steeped in history, rigid values and a code of honour,
all arranged on a canvas of vibrant cultural colour.

The animated memories of those early travels were relived on
the whitewashed walls of solitary, mile by mile. As I watched
them, I found myself thinking about the stories my father told as
the wheels beneath us turned through the dust, and how they
bridged the abyss between fact and fantasy.

The interrogations in the torture room came and went, as did
the jangle of keys, the plates of thin soupy
slipped under the
bars, and the nightmares. Through it all, I watched the walls, my
concentration fixed on the matinees and the late
night shows
that slipped across them. With time, I found I could navigate
through weeks and years I had almost forgotten took place, and
could remember details that my eyes had never quite revealed. I
revisited my first day at prep school, my first tumble from a tree-climbing
childhood, and the day I almost burned down my
parents' house.

But most of all, I remembered the tales my father told.

I pictured him rubbing a hand over his dark moustache and down
over his chin, and the words that were the bridge into another world: 'Once
upon a time . . .'


Sometimes the fear would descend over me like a veil. I would
feel myself slipping into a kind of trance, numbed by the frantic
debauched screams of the prisoner being worked over in the
torture room. In the same way that a bird in the jaws of a
predator readies itself for the end, I would push the memories
out, struggle to find silence. It only came when the uncertainty
and the fear reached its height. And with it came a voice. It
would ease me, calm me, weep with me, and speak from inside
me, not from my head, but from my heart.

In a whisper the voice guided me to my bedroom at the
Caliph's House. The windows were open, the curtains swaying,
and the room filled with the swish of the wind in the eucalyptus
trees outside.

There is something magical about that sound, as if it spans an
emptiness between restraint and the furthest reaches of the
mind. I listened hard, concentrating to the hum of distant waves
and to the rustle of crisp eucalyptus leaves, and walked down
through the house and out on to the terrace. Standing there, the
ocean breeze cool on my face, I sensed the tingle of something I
could not understand, and saw a fine geometric carpet laid over
the lawn. I strolled down over the terrace and on to the grass,
and stepped aboard it, the silk knots pressing against my bare
feet. Before I knew it, we were away, floating up into the air.

We moved over the Atlantic without a sound, icy waters
surging, cresting, breaking. Gradually, we gathered speed and
height until I could see the curve of the earth below. We crossed
deserts and mountains, oceans and endless seas. The carpet
folded back its edge, protecting me from the wind.

After hours of flight, I glimpsed the outline of a city ahead. It
was ink-black and sleeping, its minarets soaring up to the
heavens, its domed roofs hinting at treasures within. The carpet
banked to the left and descended until we were hovering over a
grand central square. It was teeming with people and life,
illuminated by ten thousand blazing torches, their flames licking
the night.

A legion of soldiers in gilded armour was standing guard.
Across from them were stallions garlanded in fine brocades,
caparisoned elephants fitted with howdahs, a pen of prowling
tigers and, beside it, a jewel-encrusted carousel. There were oxen
roasting on enormous spits, tureens of mutton stewed in milk,
platters of braised camel meat, and great silver salvers heaped
with rice and with fish.

A sea of people were feasting, entertained by jugglers and
acrobats, serenaded by the sound of a thousand flutes. Near by,
on a dais crafted from solid gold, overlaid with rare carpets from
Samarkand, sat the king. His bulky form was adorned in creamcoloured
silk, his head crowned by a voluminous turban,
complete with a peacock feather pinned to the front.

At the feet of the monarch sat a delicate girl, her skin the
colour of ripe peaches, her eyes emerald green. Her face was
partly hidden by a veil. Somehow I sensed her sadness. A platter
of pilau had been put before her, but she had not touched it. Her
head was low, her eyes reflecting a sorrow beyond all depth.

The magic carpet paused long enough for me to take in the
scene. Then it banked up and to the right, flew back across the
world over mountains and deserts, oceans and seas, and came to
a gentle rest on our own lawn.

In my heart I could hear the hum of Atlantic surf, and the
wind rippling through the eucalyptus trees. And in my head I
could hear the sound of keys jangling, and steel-toed boots
moving down the corridor, pacing over stone.

BOOK: In Arabian Nights
6.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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