Abdul Karim reviews The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman
by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman
Reviewed by ABDUL KARIM
In a small village in Afghanistan, a man by the name of Abdul Hussain who stole honey hives was taken as apprentice by the honey hives’ owner because of his extraordinary skills for caring for the bees. It is this story that makes the title of the book, The Honey Thief, a collection of oral stories, which has been co-authored by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman. This follows their successful book, The Rug Maker of Mazar-e-Sharif, set in the Woomera detention centre, detailing the journey of Mazari to Australia.
Robert Hillman is a Melbourne based writer. Najaf Mazari, a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan who arrived to Australia in 2001. Although from such different cultures, their companionship found common thread in the tradition of storytelling. In the breaking down of these cultural barriers an interesting story emerges.
As an Afghan and a Hazar like Najaf who migrated to Australia, I read this book with much curiosity and interest. In the first chapter, Najaf Mazari tells the readers that the stories in the book are the ones he has heard from his brothers and were common in his village, some of which are based on actual events and real characters, some are not. This is not a book about the whole of Afghanistan, the authors reflect on Hazara experience and identity.
‘Perhaps this is because we are a mystery people; no one knows for certain where we came from, and we have been resented for generations by those who live in Afghanistan in greater numbers than ourselves.’
Although the Hazara situation has changed somewhat in the post-Taliban period, talking about past injustices against Hazara is still taboo in Afghanistan. For example, in May 2009, officials from the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture threw tens of thousands of books relating to Hazara history into the Helmand River because they believed the books would promote disharmony in Afghan society. In Afghanistan, the publication of this book would never have been permitted. The condition of exile has provided Hazaras like Najaf some freedom to speak out without the fear of censorship.
The Honey Thief offers an insight into Afghanistan political complexities that goes beyond the contemporary conflict and particularly the ethnic tension. The focus on the Hazara experience is an attempt to provide a narrative for the Hazara people, who after many generations in Afghanistan are still considered outsiders there. A good portion of the fourth chapter describes in detail the massacres of Hazara that occurred in the late nineteen century.
‘The great massacre became part of who we are – we, the Hazaras. I say ‘part of who we are’ rather than ‘part of our history’ because history is a thing apart; something that you can study, if you wish, and write books about. The massacres are not ‘history’ in that sense; they have a place in our minds and our hearts from which they can’t be torn. But don’t imagine that it is something we wish to have living inside us. No, it is a burden. It is like the burden of the Jews. They can’t stop being Jews – they are Jews every second of their lives, being a Jew means carrying a burden of grief, because the Jews too had an Abdur Rahman in their past.’
The book is structured into thirteen chapters, so that the reader leaps from fairy tales to real life; from ordinary people to heroes; from rural to city. The last two chapters are about Afghan recipe. In a lengthy two chapters, the authors recount the horrifying story of Abdul Khaliq, a young Hazara boy who killed Nadir Shah, an oppressive ruler in Afghanistan.
‘It seems more likely that Abdul Khaliq decided to kill the King to avenge the murder of hundreds of thousands of Hazara years earlier,’ the authors write in page 62. ‘But it is not Mohammad Nadir he will be killing; it is a symbol of the oppression that the Barakzai family has subjected the Hazara to for fifty years.’
The king assassin, Abdul Khaliq, is portrayed not as a modern martyr going to heaven to meet virgin girls but somebody who stood up against injustice so those he left behind could live in dignity. But it came with a heavy price for him and his family. Although he was alone in the act, he was hanged along with his friends, school teachers, his father and uncles, all of whom who had nothing to do with the killing
Some of stories in The Honey Thief are fictitious -stories about demons, devils and superstitions that are deeply rooted in Afghanistan culture and manifested in the characters’ dialogue and thought. In the second to last chapter, Jawad rescues his parents from the scaffold by delivering gold dug from the hard earth to the doorstep of the Myer of Kandahar. ‘Jawad swung his pick at the hard earth, and again, each time he struck the ground, nuggets of gold came to the surface.’ The book blends facts with fiction in a way that is sometimes indistinguishable.
Some of the strongest themes are about forgiveness and resilience in a country that has been torn apart by war and enmity. In chapter nine and ten, a beekeeper, Abbas was summoned by Abdul Ali Mazari, a great leader of Hazara. During the Soviet Union occupation, Mazari asked the beekeeper to travel to another province in Afghanistan to ask for forgiveness for a dying patient who had betrayed his grandfather during the rule of Zahir Shah. He accepted this mission reluctantly and met the dying patient. On his returned he was a changed man. On the way back, he had lost his accompanying friend in a Russian air attack which killed another two bandits – Mujhid (fighters). The only surviving person from the incident was an injured young Russian soldier. The beekeeper nursed his wounds, fed him, saved his life and asked his leader to release him.
Najaf and Robert’s style is simple, following the oral storytelling tradition and yet remaining somehow formal. At times, I wanted the story to be more detailed and reflect the local dialects and lyrical language. But this is probably because of the difficulties of two writers from such different cultures collaborating and also because Robert Hillman, the main writer has not lived in Afghanistan. The stories in The Honey Thief are contemporary stories mostly drawn from personal anecdotes and do not reflect folkloric popular stories that are the most common among Hazaras for example Buz-e-Chini. As a Hazara, I could only relate to the story about Abdul Khaliq but the rest were unfamiliar to me. This shows that even a small village in Afghanistan is pregnant with so many stories.
Over all this is a compelling read in a political climate where there is little understanding of the Hazara who in fact make up the majority of asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Using the power of storytelling, it narrates the past suffering of Hazaras in Afghanistan in ways that surprises and astound us with insights and interesting tales. They are the first stories to appear in English language and so the authors should be commended. It also highlights the rich culture that remains so hidden behind the current conflict.
ABDUL KARIM is a freelance writer based in Sydney and a former refugee from Afghanistan. He has participated in many forums, conferences and media debates focussing on refugee issues. He has participated in the Sydney Writers’ Festival and his articles on refugees have appeared in The Australian, National Times, The Age. A photgraphy exhibiton, Unsafe Haven, has showed at UTS and currently at RMIT Gallery.