The Honey Thief Stories and Recipes by Najaf Mazari, Robert Hillman

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 Honey ThiefThe 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.

Ethnolinguistic map of Afghanistan ex wikipedia

Ethnolinguistic map of Afghanistan ex wikipedia

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.

snow leopardThey 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 immediately 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.

The author Najaf Mazari

The narrator Najaf Mazari

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.

28 thoughts on “The Honey Thief Stories and Recipes by Najaf Mazari, Robert Hillman

  1. “while offering the seduction of a fable, are rooted in a realism” …. I love reading your reviews as much as I love reading the books you recommend; your writing style is always so wonderfully engaging.

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    • Thank you, that’s so kind of you to say, I fossick around trying to explain what I felt and in this case, it was an improvement on my first thought, which was that they’re like a fable, but they’re not really like a fable.🙂 It’s fun to feret about with words.

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    • Thanks you for stopping by and commenting Najaf, I genuinely loved your book and even spoke about it to my French student this morning, because it is so refreshing to read something so authentic about the experience and lives of a community in a part of the world that gets such negative press and stereotypes. In a way reading your book gave me a similar uplifting feeling in terms of learning more about a culture that I experienced when I finally visited my husbands family and village in Palestine, another part of the world that suffers terribly from bad press, these people too have long memories and infinite patience, they know in their bones that justice can take many lifetimes. And like the Hazara, they tell wonderful stories that stretch back years and years. All the best, Claire

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  2. I could not wait a minute to buy this book — and not just because of a certain fascination with snow leopards (one that began with Peter Mathiessen’s book, ‘The Snow Leopard,’ about his journey in the Himalayas) or because of its very enticing title. I have a particular love for stories rooted in the oral tradition — which, when you get down to it, is the place that all stories begin. And how charming to end with recipes!

    On the subject of how little so many of us know about a place that dominates the news, you may well know about the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, but in case you don’t, here’s the link. http://awwproject.org/

    Also, Poetry Magazine devoted its June issue to ‘Landays’ — 2-line poems written by Afghan women. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/foundation/press/2013/186392 That should keep you busy😉

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    • I haven’t read The Snow Leopard, but I can imagine it is an enthralling book, I particularly loved the short story of the same name in this collection, wise, sad, respectful, persevering and ultimately surprising, such a clever and playful animal. And looks a bit like our cat Noisette, a safer bet🙂

      Thanks for the links to the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and Poetry Magazine, it’s great to hear about such positive projects and sharing of information.

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  3. Lovely review, Claire. I just might add this book to my TBR; I have made it a point to read books on Afghanistan to give me an insight. So far I’ve read The Kite Runner and I am on A Thousand Splendid Suns (long overdue)

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  4. This looks like a beautiful book, Claire. The title story is very beautiful and the story about the wolf makes me think of ‘Wolf Totem’ by Jiang Rong. I love the picture of the snow leopard that you have posted – it looks so majestic. Chelo Nakhod (chicken & chickpea stew) – that sounds so delicious! I can imagine having it with basmati rice – it must taste divine! Just thinking about it is making my mouth water🙂 Thanks for this beautiful review.

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    • Oh and you have just reminded me that he gives a beautiful description about how to prepare the Basmati rice which indeed goes with the Chelo Nakhod, they use Pakastani and Indian Basmati grains – the royalty of rice, he says.🙂 Even reading about the respect with which the rice is prepared really made me hungry too,

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      • Wonderful to know that, Claire! I want to read this book now! I totally agree that basmati is the royalty of rice. Whenever I cook basmati rice at home, just the fragrance while it is cooking is divine. Makes me want to try some basmati rice now🙂

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