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.

India My Heart

Over the long weekend I read the lengthy ‘Shantaram’ by David Gregory Roberts set in Mumbai (Bombay). I have never been to Bombay, but I did spend a month travelling in India in 1995 and the experience remains imprinted in my heart and memory, for me the country and its people have no equal. I love it. It is at the very top of my list of destinations, experiences and insights.

The first pages of this extraordinary story are reminiscent of many travellers’ journeys to India, the assault on all the senses, the welcoming committee, the brick of rupees, the taxi rides.

the glimpse of the suffering street brought a hot shame to my healthy face.”

“The street at the front of the building was crammed with people and vehicles, and the sound of voices, car horns, and commerce was like a storm of rain on wood and metal roofs.”

“there were beggars, jugglers, snake charmers, musicians, astrologers, palmists and pimps and pushers”

India is where you are introduced to your wits. Until I travelled there, it was a mere expression ‘make sure you have your wits about you’. In India, they rise up within you from some deep, slumbering place inside and become a living, breathing extra sensory force, providing a necessary equanimity and alert, their reward, insight.

Shantaram’ is the story of an Australian fugitive, posing as a New Zealand traveller who arrives in Bombay and unlike most travellers who stay only long enough to experience the city and plan their next destination, he stays.

Without exception, those who stay are escaping something and what that is, seems to have a direct relationship to how deep they become involved in the city’s underworld activities. Roberts stays out of trouble to begin with and provides a delightful insight into his blossoming friendship with Prabaker, who truly does represent India’s heart. Due to misfortune he moves to a slum where he spends his days working from his well-stocked first aid kit, providing rudimentary medical treatment to the inhabitants as he becomes part of the fabric of the slum community.

The two friends spend some months in Prabaker’s home village with his family and these are chapters are my favourite, portrayed with humour, a sensitive understanding and compassion. It is the calm before the storm and a period that I didn’t want to end.

Prabaker told me that family and his neighbours were concerned that I would be lonely, that I must be lonely, in a strange place, without my own family. They decided to sit with me on that first night, mounting a vigil in the dark until they were sure that I was peacefully deep in sleep. After all, the little guide remarked, people in my country, in my village, would do the same for him, if he went there and missed his family, wouldn’t they?”

However Robert’s luck changes when he is arrested one night and discovers he has unknown enemies with unknown motives and the experience of prison will unleash the darkest aspect of his character. When he is finally released he goes to work with the Bombay mafia, delving into the world of black market drug, currency and false document dealings all the while awaiting that future moment where he can exact revenge against his enemy.

This book draws you into a frightening and fascinating world that I am not sure whether we are better off knowing of or remaining in blissful ignorance of. I guess it is no worse than being subjected to the news media every evening with its plethora of images and reports of violence, oppression, corruption and greed, something I waver between wishing to avoid (and often do) and needing to have a balanced and informed awareness of.

What I perceive is the oft dreadful consequence of a genetic predisposition combined with early life tragic event that leads to a kind of corruption of the soul, I am reminded of Jonathan Ronson’s dip into the characteristics of a psychopath in The Psychopath Test which describes someone charming and influential who lacks empathy, and has an intense need to be liked. I don’t think the character in this story is a psychopath, but many in his circle survive precisely because they are not beleaguered by the emotional constraints of sympathy or empathy whether they were born like that or have become that.

Chilling indeed, though more than offset by that other extreme, a city of people whose smiles are in the eyes which broaden to encompass their whole face and being to cross that divide between people of different cultures and leave us with a warm, perplexed feeling. How is it that among such poverty, despair and ruthlessness exist the happiest people on earth?

And to know the answer to that one can only go there, experience it and ponder it oneself.