By Don George

February 2008

Book of the Month:
In Arabian Nights, by Tahir Shah

Just like a great journey, a great travel book enacts an exploration at once inward and outward. Tahir Shah's mesmerizing new memoir is just such a journey: It brings the sights, sounds, and smells of modern Morocco to vibrant life, and at the same time, it indelibly evokes the country's heart and soul. Inspired by and grounded in that exemplary collection of Arab tales,The Thousand and One Nights—also known as the Arabian Nights—Shah interweaves descriptions of his adventures and encounters in his adopted Casablanca and around the country as he pursues a time-honored Berber quest: to find the story in his heart.

In Arabian Nights, Shah's follow-up to the acclaimed The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca, is steeped in the storytelling tradition. On the one hand, Shah's father appears and reappears throughout the book, telling favored folk tales and teaching his children that such stories are "an instruction manual to the world," all the while grooming his son Tahir to carry on the family's storytelling responsibilities; on the other hand, the contemporary Moroccans Shah encounters all affirm the central educational role of the storyteller and bemoan the waning power of storytelling in their own culture.

Woven around this frame, Shah's search for the story in his heart takes him from the teeming streets of Tangier in the north, through the medieval medinas of Marrakech and Fez, to the solitary sands of the Sahara in the south. Along the way he meets a succession of colorful characters and hears their tales, from the cobbler who reverently recites "The Tale of Maruf the Cobbler" to the near-blind storyteller who entrances him with the story of Mushkil Gusha, the remover of obstacles.

Simply as a work of art and imagination, In Arabian Nights is an enthralling triumph, but in our lamentably divided modern world, it assumes an even greater importance, for Shah's account poignantly humanizes Arab culture, penetrating deep into usually unseen social and psychic layers. Like the bearer of a precious key, Shah leads us along meandering alleyways to an ancient door, which he unlocks and throws open onto the rich courtyard of traditional Arab custom and belief.

Short List: Also New

This is Israel/This is Britain, the latest titles in a series of facsimile editions of M. Sasek's classic children's travel books, with Sasek's playful original illustrations of the White Cliffs of Dover, Mount Zion, and other iconic spots in Britain and Israel.

Resistance, Owen Sheers's alternate-reality WWII novel that posits a German-occupied Britain, and what happens when a German patrol with a mysterious mission turns up in a small Welsh border town.

New Book Roundup

Indian Ink
Two new novels set in India give voice to strong female protagonists. The Palace of Illusions, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, re-imagines the Indian epic the Mahabharat from the point of view of the beautiful and ambitious princess Panchaali who is married to the five legendary Pandava brothers—simultaneously. In The Age of Shiva, by Manil Suri, a young woman in 1950s Bombay trapped in a disappointing marriage lavishes all her care and attention on her son—with consequences that echo the nation's struggles as it deals with life in post-independence India.

One Last Thing: Inside China

With business booming and Beijing Olympics-bound, China is hotter than ever. Two sumptuous new coffee table books offer decidedly different insights into the enigmatic colossus. China: People, Place, Culture, History (DK Publishing) is encyclopedic in scope and in tone. The book marries photos and art reproductions with short, educational texts. The subject selections are intriguing and illustrative: The people chapter, for example, includes portraits of a day in the life of a tea picker, a retired teacher, and a Buddhist monk. In contrast to this tome's scrupulously impersonal text, Basil Pao's China Revealed weaves a highly personal and engaging narrative through a striking, eclectic portfolio of photographs. Acclaimed photographer Pao was born in Hong Kong, but moved to England to attend high school. Almost 40 years later, he returned to China to embark on a year-long "tour of reconciliation"; this photo-text package is the inspired and illuminating record of that journey. Wonderfully complementary, these two books present the yin and yang on China old and new.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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