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Originally published Friday, February 15, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

In " In Arabian Nights," ego interrupts narrative on storytelling

"In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams" by Tahir Shah Bantam, is largely about this British travel writer's mystical and physical search for the story that speaks to his soul.

Special to The Seattle Times

"In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams"

by Tahir Shah

Bantam, 388 pp., $24

Midway through his new Moroccan memoir, Tahir Shah tells us he routinely travels with two books, one of which he opens at random and always alights on a polished jewel, a splinter of wisdom.

In "In Arabian Nights," it quickly becomes clear that Shah's purpose in relocating himself, his Indian-born wife and their two young children to Casablanca is to find his personal splinter of wisdom (at times, I was left wondering how much say Shah's wife and kids had in this endeavor). This book is largely about this British travel writer's mystical and physical search for the story that speaks to his soul.

Shah introduces us to a wide array of Moroccans, from his servants and the male friends he meets at coffee houses to a gallery of oddball characters, including a cobbler who adores fixing his worn but well-made British shoes and a woman who specializes in making peace with Jinns, a fraternity of spirits that has apparently gained a hold on the Shah family compound.

But the rhythm is uneven. Shah opens the book with a brief description of him being interrogated and tortured in Pakistan. It takes another 100 pages for him to return to the scene and explain himself better.

The book has a bittersweet heart. We are told that because of Morocco's long, strong tradition of respecting and honoring stories — particularly the spoken variety — it is the perfect place for Shah's personal search. But the author also laments that this heritage is weakening, for which he blames Egyptian television.

Shah does a nice job of sharing the origins of his joy of stories, recounting his father's masterful way of teaching him about their power. "They are symbols," Shah quotes his father as telling him. "The different people and the things in stories represent other things, bigger things."

Too often, though, the book folds in on itself, both in the sense that Shah at times can't resist writing about his own status as a writer, and that a narrative about finding stories is inherently tricky to pull off.

A bigger problem is that most characters are presented in two-dimensional form. And we meet so many it's sometimes difficult to recall who's who. Readers looking for solid ground also may be shaken by Shah's admission that "fact and fantasy blended together" during his travels.

Still, Shah writes skillfully and movingly about the local culture and remote parts of Morocco as well as the magic of the medieval walled city of Fès. Here's his description of the city at dawn:

"The first blush of pink light had touched the medina, where the only sign of life was the smoke rising solemnly from the bakeries in the twisting maze below. My father had taken me to the same spot thirty years before. He said that watching Fès was like peering into a world that had disappeared centuries ago."

In the end, Shah is writing primarily for himself, and he sometimes gets in his own way.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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