What is it good for?
I recently listened to a Moth Radio episode that featured the award winning American journalist Sebastian Junger telling the story about why he decided to become a war correspondent at the ripe old age of 31 and how he ultimately came to realize the true nature of war.
It was a sad tale that ended with the death of his friend and colleague Tim Hetherington who was killed by mortar shells while covering the Libyan civil war of 2011. When Junger, safe at home in America, got the news of his friends passing via his Twitter feed, he was in a state of shock. What he would eventually come to realize was that though he had made it his life’s work to cover war by way of putting himself directly in the line of fire, he didn’t understand what it all really meant until he personally lost a brother in arms. The truth is that when you go to battle it’s guaranteed that you will lose lives, and sometimes, the lives lost will be those closest to you. War is an equal opportunity killer, taking strangers, civilians, and those we love away from us without prejudice.
In many ways this collection’s title, The Honey Thief, draws the same ultimate conclusion. It took me a quite a while, almost 200 pages in fact, to realize exactly what authors Mazari and Hillman were trying to say by way of the rather odd title. In fact, there’s a blink-and-you-might-miss-it moment that’s quite revealing:
When she had left the room, Khalid Naseri said, ‘Americans call those they love “honey”. It took me a long time to understand. We have been married for thirty years. Our sons are grown.’
It took me a long time to understand as well.
Even though the collection features stories involving a beekeeper, and even though there’s a tale included titled The Honey Thief, it’s clear that the thief at work here is war. It strikes senselessly, killing all those standing in its path, some of which are completely defenseless and have little to do with the matter at hand. Afghanistan historically, and still is, a country ravaged by war. No one knows this better than the Hazara, the third largest group of individuals living there. Mazari is Hazara, but he now lives in Australia with his wife and family. This wonderful collection contains retellings of the tales of folklore and mythology that he remembers about his land.
I was worried when I started reading that I wouldn’t be able to relate to what Mazari was saying. I was worried that there would be too much emphasis on war, or too much tragedy occurring for me to be able to comprehend the significance of his stories or reach some sort of common ground. Thankfully I was wrong.
Yes, war weighs heavily in the tales recounted here, in fact it can be considered its own major character, but this book is not about death, instead it’s about celebrating the hope inherent in life. With charming language and the deft skill of master storytellers, Mazari and Hillman weave magical tales of hidden dangers, musical treasures, family bonds, and dangerous environments together in a way that dazzles the reader’s senses. There’s the perfect balance of what could be fact, mixed with what must be fiction, to create plausible, heartfelt stories that both highlight the long standing traditions of the Hazara and teach important life lessons all along the way.
There’s not a bad story to be found here. Each is rich in detail, transporting the reader across the globe and across time periods, to experience the events being told in vivid detail. My personal favorites include: The heartwarming The Music School, in which a young boy who is unable to speak discovers his true voice through the gift of music. The Russian, in which a Hazara man must decide what to do with a young Russian solider that he’s rescued from certain death. And The Snow Leopard, which find an Englishman being guided up a treacherous mountain in search of an elusive beast.
The collection closes with a number of recipes for cooking traditional Afghani food. I can’t say that I’ve personally tried any of them out, but they do sound delicious.
The Honey Thief is an accomplished work. It tugs at the reader’s senses, demands their thoughtful attention, and rewards them for the effort with universal tales of human longing. As long as there is war, there will always be the hope that its fires can ultimately be extinguished.
The Honey Thief
By Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman