The Honey Thief
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“We are a people who should never have survived our history of five thousand years; we are a people who should no longer exist. And yet we do, and there is beauty in that fact alone.”
The stories of Afghanistan’s people, culture and history that comprise The Honey Thief are masterfully told, with themes that transcend all geographical, cultural and religious borders. The second collaboration between Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman, The Honey Thief engages each of the senses with detailed descriptions of traditional Afghan cooking, colorful depictions of the country’s breathtaking landscape, painful accounts of war and death and tales of enchanting music played on the tula and the rubab.
A number of the stories in The Honey Thief are based on historical events, referencing important figures in Afghanistan’s history. But the style of the writing is not that of a history bookit’s one of oral tradition, storytelling and folktales shared by generations of the Hazara people, the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Mazari and Hillman bring Hazara culture into vivid focus with stories that are joyous, gut wrenching, fantastical and memorable.
Written by an Afghan refugee living in Melbourne and an Australian, the creation of this book itself is a tribute to crosscultural collaboration while remaining a deeply authentic account of life in Afghanistan. The story “Thoughts on Growing and Eating” begins: “In my country of Afghanistan everything is arranged in such a way that your heart is broken again and again.” The characters in these tales will break your heart, but they will also make it swell with empathy and human understanding. There has not been much peace in the lives of the Hazara, but there has been art and prayer, an urgent desire to learn and share wisdom, great bravery and the persistence of hope. It is this hope for the future of the Afghan people that propels these moving stories, and those who tell them, onward.
Najaf Mazari fled upheaval in Afghanistan in 2001 and made his way to Australia, where he now lives with his wife and daughter and owns a successful shop that sells traditional Afghan rugs. He is involved with charities that provide medical and educational assistance to poor villages in Afghanistan, and he is also dedicated to creating a better environment for asylumseekers in Australia. In 2008 Najaf coauthored The Rugmaker of MazareSharif, which eloquently depicts his journey as a refugee from Afghanistan to Australia.
Robert Hillman is a Melbourne-based writer of fiction and biography. His autobiography, The Boy in the Green Suit, won the Australian National Biography Award for 2005. His 2007 biography, My Life as a Traitor, written with Zarah Ghahramani, was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in 2008. His first collaboration with Najaf Mazari, The Rugmaker of MazareSharif, grew out of an abiding interest in the hardships and triumphs of refugees.
Q. (BOTH) This is the second book you’ve written together. Could you describe your collaborative process for coauthoring these projects?
Najaf: 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’?”
Q. (NAJAF) How has leaving your homeland changed the way you think, and write, about Afghanistan and the Hazara people?
In the West, politics is part of everything. Before I came to Australia, I did not realise that people thought about politics so much. In Afghanistan, we think of good people and bad people and life and death, and of course politics is mixed up in such thinking, but it is not very complicated. When I think about my homeland and my people these days, I seem to have many more questions to answer. You see, I now live in a very, very modern country, and the more modern the country, the more complicated the life you lead. When I think of Afghanistan, I see now that the life I lived there was so simple. Simple, and also beautiful, in some ways. But the violence was shocking. Things stop being simple and beautiful when a land mine explodes and takes away the foot of a child.
Q. (BOTH) Did you grow up listening to stories told by your family members? Do you enjoy telling stories orally as well, or are you more accustomed to writing them down?
Najaf: I listened to stories from the time I was a baby and all my life. My older brother, Gorg Ali, he was like a wise man, and also a very peaceful man. He had strange powers. His stories always meant somethinglike a lesson being taught. No matter how the story started and where it took you, in the end it had a lesson to teach. Whenever I tell a story to my daughter, I tell it in the same way as Gorg Ali, even if it is only to do with the need to brush your teeth properly. But I must say this, too: Unless the story was well told, the lesson would have meant nothing. The most important thing is the pleasure the story gives. If it has a lessonokay.
Robert: My father told me stories when I was a kid. When we went fishing together, he would occupy the time while we waited for the fish to bite with outrageous stories of his adventures before my birth. He claimed to have dug the Panama Canal singlehandedly to impress a beautiful woman, and to have fought beside Winston Churchill in World War II. His reward came when I could no longer contain my disbelief and shouted: “That’s not true!” I’ve followed the same custom with my own three sons. One’s children form a captive audience. Best not waste the opportunity.
Q. (BOTH) How do you view the role of the expatriate writer within the global literary community?
Najaf: Writing books with Robert is not my main work. I spend much more time repairing antique rugs. This requires as much skill as writing books! I go back to Afghanistan so often that I do not feel like a stranger to my home country. When I return to MazareSharif and see my friends and many members of my family, they think that writing books has changed me into a Western person, because very few people write books in Afghanistan. But then they see that I am just the same.
Robert: It has always been the mission of expatriate writers to comment on their countries in a more critical wayperhaps even a more illuminating waythan would have been possible if they had never left home. Najaf has developed some of this exile’s insight, even though he returns to Afghanistan frequently enough. He talks to me about his hopes and fears for Afghanistan with a sharper awareness of the situation, I think, than he would have bothered with if he were still living in MazareSharif. His insight takes in the whole of his country rather than just the Hazara domains. He tells me it gives him pleasure to help bring stories of Afghanistan to a wide public. Afghanistan is always in danger of being dismissed as a hellhole, teeming with madmen. It’s a country of more variety, more colour, more creative vigour than Westerners realise. Stories that help to reveal that variety make a contribution to the international creative estate.
Q. (NAJAF) In the chapter “Thoughts on Growing and Eating,” the narrator says: “The most frustrating thing of all for me is knowing what plenty the soil of Afghanistan can produce when it is given the chance.” This is such a striking statement. Does this sum up your perspective on your home country?
Let me say this: in Australia, there is not much more land where you can grow food than in Afghanistan. But in Australia, enough food is grown to feed half the world. Why? Peace. That is the reason. Peace. War is bad for people growing food. The chance I want for Afghanistan is peace and sanity.
Q. (BOTH) Who are your literary influences?
Najaf: Only the stories that I heard in our villageall spoken aloud. The storytellers, whether my father, my brothers or those master storytellers who visited village after village, all told stories in the same way. But some had gestures to go with the story that those of us listening would enjoy very much. The master storytellers were experts at making us scared at times and happy at times just by changing the tone of their voices and waving their arms about.
Robert: The influences I was most aware of when writing these stories were the early English balladeers, mostly anonymous, who gave us The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, The Twa Corbies and The Unquiet Grave. Also the many authors of the Thousand and One Nights and Ernest Hemingway.
Q. (NAJAF) Did you learn English while living in Afghanistan?
I understood no English at all in Afghanistan. I came from a peasant familywhat would be called a peasant family by Western standards. When I found myself living amongst people who spoke English, it was like wearing handcuffs and irons on my legs. Every step I took was painful and difficult. When I began to learn English, it was as if first the handcuffs came off, then the leg irons. Language comes from your throat and your mouth, but it begins in your heart and makes you free.
Q. (NAJAF) In “The Behsudi Dowry,” the character of Hameed is thought to be foolish and absentminded for his love of books. His parents can see no value in reading fiction. How was reading literature for pleasure viewed in your household and community growing up?
In Afghanistan, only a few very educated people read books other than the holy books. If my brothers or my father or my mother had seen me reading a novel, they would have thought I was insane and would have called a doctor or a mullah to fix me.
Q. (ROBERT) How did you become interested in the narrative of the refugee?
At the time I first met Najaf, the Muslim refugees who were arriving in Australia on ramshackle boats were being characterised as criminals and terrorists in the press. This demonisation suited the politics of Australia just after 9/11 (or “11/9” as it is known here). It struck me that something vile was happening in my countrysomething that I might look back on in years to come and think, “Why didn’t you say something?” I wrote Najaf’s story as a way of saying something. The friendship we formed led to Najaf telling me more and more about the culture of the Hazara. The stories in The Honey Thief are, in a way, the backstory of Najaf’s life told in The Rugmaker of MazareSharif.
Q. (BOTH) The themes discussed throughout The Honey Thiefthe importance of love, work, hopeare universal, crossing all kinds of boundaries of culture, faith, geography, and socioeconomic status. What is your hope for this book? More broadly, what role do you believe literature can play in uniting people across borders?
Stories like those in The Honey Thief make a small difference here and there to the sympathy for people who are struggling through life. Literature cannot change people’s hearts completely. Just a little. A little is okay. We must remember that if stories that honour courage and enjoyment of life could suddenly change everything, then another book that teaches distrust and hatred might also change everything back. People don’t read stories like those in The Honey Thief in order to have their eyes opened. They read them for enjoyment; for pleasure. If it happens that some readers feel that they have gained more than enjoyment, that’s a good thing. We hope that readers will enjoy this book in the same way that they enjoy fresh food cooked by someone who loves good food. We hope that people will smile as they finish each story and say, “Well, that was wonderful!”
- How does the narration in The Honey Thief honor the traditional folktales of the Hazara people?
- How would you characterize the narrator of these stories? Is it a single narrative voice, or does the voice vary from story to story?
- How does the theme of religious faith play a role in these stories?
- The love of art, particularly music and literature, is a central theme of the stories “The Music School” and “The Behsudi Dowry.” How is art valued in each of these stories, and what does an interest in art enable the main characters to achieve?
- What is the relationship of the Hazara to their homeland as a nation? What is their relationship to the Hazarajat as an ecosystem for farming, fighting or finding shelter?
- The Hazara, as represented in this book, have specific traditions and laws about work, family, courtship, marriage and religion. Occasionally though, an individual rebels against these social and cultural mores. What do these stories seem to say about those who go against the grain of the Hazara? When are their straying actions tolerated and when are they punished?
- How does storytelling function in the world of the Hazara as depicted throughout these stories? What is its purpose?
- Forgiveness is another major theme. Are the conflicts in these stories solved more often with forgiveness or with vengeance?
- In “The Snow Leopard,” what does the friendship between the Englishman and Mohammad Hussein symbolize? How does the Englishman’s attitude towards his search for the snow leopard change throughout the story?
- How is wisdom accumulated or passed on? What kind of knowledge is valued by the Hazara, and what sorts of pursuits are looked down upon as foolish?