The best travel advice I’ve ever received is: befriend the locals. Or rather, convince the locals to befriend you. Whether it’s a small town in Maine or a village in Afghanistan (preferably when there’s not a war going on), no one knows a place like the people who live there.
I won’t be visiting Afghanistan any time soon – and sadly, I’m left to wonder if the Afghanistan it describes still exists – but be that as it may The Honey Thief is a great way to learn more about the nation and the Hazara people who make up roughly 22% of its population. The book is a collaboration between Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman. Mazari is a native Afghani who left his home country in 2001 and now lives in Australia with his family. He is the author of the memoir The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif . Robert Hillman is the prize-winning Australian author of the autobiographyThe Boy in the Green Suit. So both these men have some authorial experience behind them. I call them collaborators rather than co-authors based on their own description of the process by which this book was written -
Najaf talks; Robert fashions what he says into the sentences that become the stories. When Robert has completed a chapter or a story, Najaf reads it and offers suggestions. The question Najaf asks himself as he’s reading is this: “If these words were now translated into Dari, would my family in Afghanistan nod their heads and say, ‘This is our country. This is true’?”
The result is an engaging little book of short stories and recipes told to us by a friendly and charismatic narrator. It’s the narrative voice, Najaf Mazari’s voice I expect, that sells The Honey Thief. His storytelling contains the perfect blend of honesty, exaggeration & nostalgia – capturing the charming informality of the oral tradition.
And the idea of including traditional recipes is pure genius. These are written in the same style as the rest of the book and contain instructions like: “Fresh yoghurt. This must be proper yoghurt, not that foolish yoghurt that is sometimes sold with bananas in it and strawberries and sugar”. It’s as if you’re standing in the kitchen next to Mazari while he prepares dinner. It’s a wonderful change from the ubiquitous discussion points meant to target the members of book clubs.
The recipes are a bonus feature that comes at the end though. The Honey Thief starts by telling us about the Hazara people.
A tribe is a world. I have described myself to people who are not of my tribe in this way and that, and usually I satisfy the person I’m talking to, and also satisfy myself, up to a point. I say ‘ I am a pacifist,’ and so place myself in a very large tribe of people who share at least one belief with me. Or I say, ‘I am a businessman,’ and the banker I am addressing knows that I can be relied on to keep an accurate account of what I buy and sell; that I make sensible decisions with my money. I say, ‘I am a Muslim,’ and the Muslim listening to me will make a dozen assumptions about the life I lead, most of them correct. When I meet a Hazara, I don’t say, ‘Nice to meet you, I am Hazara.’ There is no need. We will greet each other in a different way to the way we greet people who are not of our tribe. We will be both excited and shy at one time. Excited because we are brothers, shy because without even knowing my name, the man I am talking to can see deep into my heart…
From there you’ll go n to read an eclectic mix of histories, folktales, family stories and (of course) the recipes. The Honey Thief really has a little bit of everything. I particularly liked the stories set in the recent past (1970’s & 80’s). In many ways these are the most brutal, but that’s because they seem the most connected to current events. Many of them follow the life of Abbas Behishti – who is a young boy dealing with the loss of his beloved grandfather when we meet him in the titular story. As a grown man he makes a journey on motorcycle across a landscape stripped bare by war with the Soviets. The stark juxtaposition of a man whose way of life seems to have changed very little since his apprenticeship as a child to a beekeeper and the mujaheddin soldiers with machine guns he encounters as he travels across the country is startling… as much to him as to us. The inclusion of these slices of a “modern” Afghanistan rounds out the book and turns it into something of a mini compendium on the Hazara people.
Even with the introduction of modern warfare, this is still one of the more light-hearted accounts of Afghani life I’ve read to date. Alternating between fables and stories makes them resonate and creates context. Add the traditional recipes and it becomes an immersive experience. Underlying it all is the deep love of an expatriate for the home he’s left behind. The Honey Thief is a chance to learn about a place and it’s people from someone who knows it best.
Publisher: Viking, New York (2013)
ISBN: 978 0 670 02648 7