The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman

The Honey Thief
One of my favorite covers ever. The effect of a watercolor or ink brush painting on the textured, matte dust jacket is gorgeous.

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

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The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

TheWanderingFalconThere’s a lot of talk among bloggers and reviewers about the importance of translation and International literature.  Some of the most concise criticisms have been written by Tim Parks for the New York Review of Books blog.  He makes good points that the idea that translation/international literature opens up  cultures is exaggerated and a convincing case that literature as a whole is becoming homogenized.  This may be true for most Western countries, but parts of the East may be an entirely different matter.  Aspects of some societies and governments may have the unintended benefit of preserving a country’s literary traditions by the simple fact that exposure to outside influences is limited.   In many ways Jamil Ahmad is the perfect counter argument to Tim Parks.  He is a 79-year old former Pakistani civil servant.  The Wandering Falcon is his first novel, written in the 1970’s.  Here is an author who is clearly not connected to the Western literary tradition.

There was a full moon, and it hung half hidden behind the northern cliff.  The moonlight was strong and dazzling to the eyes.  His wife silently pointed at the moon.  A long distance away on the mountain crest, he could see small antlike figures silhouetted against its orb.  There was a long chain of them moving slowly with loads on their backs.  These were the ice cutters.  They were men who lived in the highest village, whose main occupation was cutting blocks of ice from the glaciers and carrying them on their backs down into the valley, where waiting trucks loaded them up and sped away to the cities, to people living in warmer regions.

Take for example the titular character of the novel, Tor Baz,who laughingly dubs himself as the wandering falcon in one of the stories in this collection.  He is always a secondary character.  There is not a single  story in these pages that is all his own.  Ahmad uses him is an unusual framing device, having him make Hitchcock-ian cameos in every story. Tor Baz is our escort and guide.  Through the course of the narrative we learn about the events that led to his birth, his strange upbringing and coming of age.  The author hints at the man he might ultimately become, but he is never given a plotline to be resolved.

Most reviews describe The Wandering Falcon as a collection of linked short stories.  The protagonist of this collection isn’t Tor Baz.  It’s a specific culture .  I have to believe that Jamil Ahmad set out to describe a way of life that once (perhaps still?) existed in the  Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.  FATA is an isolated region that shares its borders with both Afghanistan and Iran.  And although The Wandering Falcon was written in the 1970’s – before this area became associated with U.S. drone attacks and the Taliban – modern readers will link what they read to the place constantly in the media.

The porous borders reported on the evening news feature prominently in The Death of Camels (my favorite story), but from a flipped perspective.  The Kharots depend on their ability to travel unmolested between Pakistan and Afghanistan with their camels.  They need to stay on the move, using watering holes and grazing pastures located on both sides of the border.  (It’s really a simple equation – staying too long in one place will deplete the area’s resources and the camels die).  This is how they’ve survived for generations.  The closing of the borders equals disaster for their way of life.   Ahmad constructs a heartbreaking portrait of how the tribal structure struggles to function in a world changing too quickly.  On another level he is telling a heartbreaking story about a father and son.

This way of life had endured for centuries, but it would not last forever.  It constituted defiance to certain concepts, which the world was beginning to associate with civilization itself.  Concepts such as statehood, citizenship, undivided loyalty to one state, settled life as opposed to nomadic life, and the writ of the state as opposed to tribal discipline.

The pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life, had to die.  In this clash, the state, as always, proved stronger than the individual.  The new way of life triumphed over the old.  The clash came about first in Soviet Russia.  After a few years, the nomad died in both China and Iran.

By the autumn of 1958, with the British Empire dismantled and the once fluid international boundaries of high Asia becoming ever more rigid, both Pakistan and Afghanistan challenged the nomads.  Restraints were imposed on the free movement of the Powindas, the “foot people.”

In Ahmad’s stories a woman’s fate is usually dependent on the whims of some man – husbands, fathers, brothers and even complete strangers hold the power.  We meet women who are sold into slavery, valued by their husband as less than a performing bear or hunted for adultery.   They make choices, fully aware of the consequences attached to them.  Again, the perspective is different from what I’m used to.  The situations are often brutal, but the women are never depicted as down-trodden.  They show no self-pity.  They are not necessarily unloved.  Ahmad portrays them as dignified and courageous…not as victims.  The men they encounter are not caricatures.  And so Ahmad shows us both right and wrong, hope and despair, honor and depravity – often within the same character.   His judgements are all the more powerful because they remain unwritten.

Ahmad describes events as if he has personally witnessed them, slowly and steadily pulling us deeper into the culture of the “foot people”.  What happens in one story has repercussions in another.  (Much like what happens in one part of the world has repercussions in another).  When I finished I felt I had a better understanding of a place I’ve heard about, but never seen.  Don’t misunderstand me – I am not trying to claim reading The Wandering Falcon made me an overnight expert on Pakistan.  It’s a step in the right direction, though.  And perhaps an American or a British author could have written this book which isn’t even a translation.  But a Pakistani author did.  30+ years later, an American woman has the opportunity to read it and it is completely relevant to the state of the world she lives in.  I think that’s important.  Actually, I think it’s pretty incredible.

Note:  The Wandering Falcon was just shortlisted for the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.  In 2011 it was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. 

Publisher:  Riverhead Books, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 59448 827 6

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In the Sea There Are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda (translated from Italian by Howard Curtis)

The extended title of Fabio Geda’s novel In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is Based on the True Story of Enaiatollah Akbari.  Geda explains in his introduction – the events are true, but because “Enaiatollah didn’t remember it all perfectly… this book must be considered fiction, since it is a recreation of Enaiatollah’s experience – a recreation that has allowed him to take possession of his own story”.  This struck me as an intelligent choice to make in today’s climate of debunked memoirs.  A choice which in no way detracts from the power of the story and a route I’m surprised more authors don’t choose.

In the Sea There Are Crocodiles begins with Enaiatollah Akbari recounting the last time he saw his mother.  He was 10-years-old.  She smuggled him out of their small Afghanistan village of Nava and across the border into Quetta, Pakistan.  Their Hazara (Shia) family was targeted by a gang of Pashtun (Sunni), who threatened to sell Enaiatolla and his brother into slavery as a means of recouping money they claim the boys’ father owes them.  Their father is dead.

His mother took him to Pakistan as a last resort.  He’d grown too big for her to hide.  But she does not explain any of this to him.  She does not prepare him. The boy falls asleep to the sound of his mother’s voice and when he wakes she is gone.  So begins Enaiat’s new life.  One which will take him on a five year journey from Pakistan to Iran, Iran to Turkey, Turkey to Greeze, and eventually all the way to Rome, Italy.

Enaiat tells his own story in a charming and engaging voice, creating the impression that we are reading a transcript.  Small asides between Geda & Enaiat, highlighted from the main text in italics, further the feeling of intimacy. In the Sea There Are Crocodiles is a small, slim book.  The writing is unexpectedly sophisticated – it’s difficult to describe.  Events are relayed simply, starkly, without embellishment…as a child might. Several times the author asks for more details. He tells Enaiatollah that readers will want more specifics. The boy is adamant – all that matters is what happened. The characters are transient – interchangeable – they could be anyone. The facts are the universals.  In this way, how his mother left him sets the tone for his entire story.  Reasons go unexplained.  Emotions are not examined.  He is not happy or sad, things are not good or bad.  Everything is about survival.

And Enaiatollah Akbari survives. Through most of the book the reader is given the impression that he has moved through his adventures in a giant, soap bubble – breezing through episodes of horror and unpleasantness unscathed.  People are kind to Enaiat.  As you read it, his does not strike you as a sad story.  Despite characters dying, no one is mourned. When a young companion of Enaiat’s drowns during the treacherous water crossing from Turkey to Greece, it is dealt with in just a few sentences. Afterwards the boy’s name, Liaqat, is never mentioned again.

These high waves were different from normal waves.  They got mixed up with the others, and the dinghy made a strange movement, like a horse stung by a bee.  And Liaqat couldn’t hold on.  I felt his fingers slide over my shoulder.  He didn’t scream, he didn’t have time.  The dinghy had suddenly tossed him out.

Let me get this right.  Liaqat fell into the water?


And what did the rest of you do?

We looked for him as best we could, hoping to see him among the waves, and we shouted.  But he disappeared.

What initially appears as an attempt to down-play the brutality of the situation could have something to do with the target audience.  Separate adult and YA English translations, with different covers, were released simultaneously.  (Personally, I’m not sure why the distinction was made – since the whimsical cover of the adult edition could easily work for YA).  And while the subject matter is on the mature side, the basic level on which it is written should not be difficult for an 11-12 year old (the age of Enaiat was at the time) to read on their own.  Events are dealt with and overcome, not psychologically explored.  Which somehow makes them seem less disturbing.  That’s where the sophistication I had trouble explaining earlier comes into play.  Sometimes the most complicated, carefully designed objects are deceptively simple in appearance.  But that kind of simplicity takes skill to achieve.  And Fabio Geda has achieved it.

It isn’t until Enaiat reaches Rome, in the final chapters of this wonderful novel, that the full impact of what this young boy has survived hits you.  Not because of a moment of sudden introspection.  It is the contrast between his life of the last 5 years and how he is now expected to live that sharpens everything, bringing it all suddenly into focus.  What has become normal for Enaiat, and for the readers, is not normal at all.  Fabio Geda deals with the shift deftly, avoiding the kind of sentimentality that would cheapen this extraordinary story.*

Publisher:  New York, Doubleday (2011).
ISBN:  978 0 385 53473 4

*Only , in the end, it doesn’t seem so extraordinary, does it?  According to a report prepared for the members of the U.S. Congress in 2007, 56.2% of the Afgani refugee population is under 18.  That’s a lot of children who are potentially in the same situation as Enaiat. 

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