I requested The Honey Thief to read because it appeared to offer a unique insight into a culture we know little about and about which we see and read far too much negative press.
The book promised an alternative perspective, not because the author had lived an extra-ordinary life, but because as part of his upbringing he and others like him listened to these stories passed down and sometimes relived from one generation to the next. They are not about war, oppression, the Taliban, terrorists or western women living in a foreign culture, they are about sharing the wisdom and perspective of a people who have only experiences to share, wisdom to offer and guidance as their intent.
Sometimes stories are all that is left to be passed on to the younger generation and we are fortunate to be given this glimpse into these gifts of an ancient culture and tradition.
Najaf Mazari was born in Afghanistan, though he only refers to his homeland as that since he left it, because before anything he is Hazara, one of the many peoples of that vast and mountainous tract of land surrounded by six countries, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran and inhabited by more than 14 ethnic groups, separated socially and geographically.
Rather than an affinity with what we casually call Afghanistan, his loyalties are to his people and the area they have inhabited for at least 800 years, Hazarajat, although due to its’ long history of domination, they have often fled their spiritual home for the sanctuary of the mountains or other lands. But loyalty remains deep within them all, no matter where they find themselves.
Living as a refugee in Australia, Mazari with the aid of his friend Robert Hillman, shares these stories that are part of the fabric of Hazara life, stories of an oral tradition, keeping their bonds and culture alive, giving them courage and hope to continue to endure the many challenges that will face them, from family expectations to foreign visitors, to facing an enemy and offering forgiveness.
They know the mountains and rocks are loyal and must be respected, they read the wind and interpret the moon and understand that wars can last 100 years. We see their relationship to the mountains in the poignant story The Snow Leopard, where a visiting English photographer wishes to track and photograph the elusive creature. His first visit is unsuccessful, no one will guide him to those dangerous parts of the mountain where it is believed the snow leopard resides, as there is more than just the mountain to fear. On his second visit, he finds a guide and though unsuccessful, their journey is filled with insight, learning and a renewed respect for the mountain.
The stories share something of the way the Hazara see the world and the story The Honey Thief brilliantly encapsulates their relationship with nature, animal life and shows how good can sometimes come from bad. The narrator shares with a boy how he became a beekeeper, caught red-handed stealing the honey, his captor observing that he wasn’t stung – thus finding his future apprentice.
Similarly this boy, whose grandfather is a wise man whom the villagers consult daily, discovers that even wise men have something to learn from young boys who like to ask lots of questions in The Wolf is the Most Intelligent of Creatures and learns that what might appear to be ill advice may in fact be the correct advice to give. This story, the very first, is sure to immediate challenge your own perceptions, something I adore in travel and delight in finding in a great tale.
Almost like fables and yet not, because all of these stories, while offering the seduction of a fable, are rooted in a realism that convinces the reader they tell of lives actually lived and not conjured up or given magical powers, a device that the common fable sometimes utilises.
And when the stories finish, we discover perhaps the greatest gift of all, one that can be referred back to and shared at home ourselves, a small collection of mouth-watering recipes with names and ingredients like Lamb Qorma, Sabzi Gosht, (lamb with spinach), Kofta Nakhod (beef & chickpeas), Boulanee (like Cornish pasties) and Chelo Nakhod (chicken & chickpea stew); surely living proof of the richness and diversity of their culinary culture and the trade that has passed between these boundaries of peoples for hundreds of years.
If you are interested in learning more, or considering reading the book, I highly recommend checking out these two excellent reviews:
- Richard Marcus at BlogCritics - a beautiful, sensitive and concise review, how he packs so much into so few words, I’m still trying to figure out.
- Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes – check out this short but flavoursome review and the recipe with pictures, she not only read the book, but cooked that first recipe with astounding success!
Note: This book was provided by the publisher Viking, a member of the Penguin Group US, in return for an honest review.