“The torture chamber was ready for use. There were 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.”
Arrested by Pakistani security forces while making a documentary on the lost treasure of the Mughals, the only comfort Tahir Shah found in his cold, bare detention cell was in the memories of his peaceful home in Morocco and the stories his father would tell him as a child.
After being released, Shah realises he must delve deep into the culture of Morocco to better understand the stories his father told, and the meanings hidden in them. Told of the Berber legend that each person must strive to find the story in their heart, Shah becomes obsessed with finding the story in his heart and begins to travel throughout the Saharan country, seeking out traditional Moroccan storytellers in traditional Moroccan tea-houses and ancient medinas.
With dismay, he discovers that the tradition of storytelling in Morocco has been dying out since the advent of television and Egyptian soap-operas. Old storytellers have had to find other occupations to earn a livelihood and they find themselves unable to find apprentices to pass on the oral tradition to, but he perseveres and travels to Fez, Marrakech and deep into the Sahara in his search.
The book is interspersed with brilliant tales transmitted to him by the locals and stories his father had told him as a child. He is especially fascinated with the many stories contained within his father’s first edition copy of “Alf Layla Wa Layla” (A Thousand and One Nights) compiled by the nineteenth-century British explorer Richard Burton.
The vibrancy of Shah’s characters simply cannot be made up. He has a true gift for exposing their quirkiness so that the reader feels a kinship with each one of them. In between the tales he effortlessly weaves threads of his domestic life, such as his struggles with protecting the honour of his guardians, the rivalry between his two maids and his efforts to pass on the storytelling tradition to his children.
In Arabian Nights makes the reader begin to doubt the wisdom of Western pragmatism and will make everyone fall in love, even if just a little, with Morocco and the exotic, mysterious layers of Eastern thought.