By Richard Marcus
Whenever I’ve wanted to learn something about a culture I’d read the stories the people told each other. Not the stories others tell about them, or what’s been written about them in history books, but the ones which have been passed down from generation to generation. They could be anything from myths to family histories, but they all contain elements of what a people believe in and their view of the world’s history. The more stories you read the clearer a picture you begin to develop of how a people live and what matters to them.
In this era of globalization and cultural homogenization I think its even more important than ever to understand the things which distinguish various peoples from each other. It’s become far too easy to make pejorative statements about an entire race or creed because we’ve not taken the time to understand the various nuances and distinctions among the wide variety of people who make up the population of a country let alone a religion. In the West we are especially guilty of making these types of generalizations when talking about countries outside North America and Europe. One of the most glaring examples of this is Afghanistan.
If ever a country has been the plaything of Western powers it’s been this remote country bordering Pakistan and Iran. From the British and Russians manipulating its rulers back in the 19th century to the Russians and Americans using it to fight the Cold War in the 1980s and today’s supposed ongoing war on terror being conducted by occupying NATO troops, peace is something that breaks out between what has been an almost constant state of war in the country for almost two centuries. Yet in spite of our countries’ direct involvement with the affairs of this nation, we know little or nothing about it.
In the hopes of learning more about the country and its people I requested a copy of The Honey Thief written by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman published by Penguin Canada. Mazari immigrated from Afghanistan to Australia in 2000 escaping the Taliban. Technically speaking this book isn’t about the people of Afghanistan, mainly because there is no one group of people who can be said to be Afghanistan. The country is divided along ethnic lines both geographically and socially, and Mazari is Hazara. The Hazara now live, predominately, in the central mountainous region of the country known as the Hazarajat.
While the Hazara are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, one of the first things we learn from Mazari is they have been one of the most persecuted. From the 19th century well into the 20th century they were the victims of what amounts to systematic genocide by the ruling Barakzai family of Afghanistan. When whole villages weren’t being exterminated by government soldiers their land was been taken from them. When the members of the royal family weren’t busy plotting against each other, they were buying the loyalty of their soldiers and friends by giving them Hazara land.
While the history of persecution obviously colours and shapes the lives of the Hazara people it’s only one thread running through the narrative of the people. The stories in The Honey Thief are filled with details which will never find their way into history books. We learn about their ingenuity and their will to survive in spite of what the world throws at them. In “The Snow Leopard,” a British photographer is taken into the mountains by a Hazara guide in search of Snow Leopards to photograph; we are given a guided tour of the environment they live in. We learn how the valleys in mountain ranges are used to grow food and how if a valley doesn’t have good soil, they will carry soil from other areas into the valley in order to grow crops.
We also learn a little of their philosophy regarding the world around them. In the book’s title story, “The Honey Thief,” a young man is apprenticed to a bee keeper to learn the delicate mysteries of collecting honey. His new master tells him how he became a bee keeper after he was caught stealing honey by the young man’s grandfather. It was thought, he explains to his new apprentice, since he was able to steal honey from the bees without being stung he would make a good bee keeper because bees hate it when people steal the honey they’ve worked so hard to collect. The bee keeper goes on to explain to his young charge that bees, like all domestic animals, are slaves to men, and we steal from all of them.
This tale isn’t meant as a morality lesson, rather a lesson in the realities of existence. Be aware of exactly what it is you’re doing in order to survive, and you will understand why others act they way do in response. Is it any wonder chickens will attempt to hide their eggs or bees attempt to sting us when we keep them enslaved and steal from them as well? This is quite a bit more sophisticated and honest understanding of the relationship between man and the beasts we use for food and domestic work than we hear expressed by most people.
While the stories are both profoundly beautiful and moving they also serve to fill in the details of everyday life among the Hazara people outsiders would only learn after years of observation. While they might have a natural mistrust of strangers, especially those from other ethnic groups, once a person has shown his or herself to be harmless they will be accepted. Or, unlike other subsistence people whose lives depend on what they can produce from their fields or by the labour of their own hands, they understand the value of education. If the chance arises they will send their children, both boys and girls, to school.
While every Hazara child learns from their parent basic precepts of respect and obedience for their parents and their God, they also recognize there are exceptions to every rule. In the story “The Music School,” a mute teenager learns how to give voice to his thoughts with a musical instrument. He is desperate to tell the young woman he loves how he feels about her, but his teacher has forbidden him to play in public until four years have passed from when he began his lessons.
Fearing she will have found someone else in that time he disobeys his teacher, plays for the young women and wins her heart. When he goes to return his instrument to his teacher’s house he fully expects to be punished and probably be forbidden from studying anymore. Instead his teacher gives him six gold coins to help him start his new family and tells him to take the instrument home and bring it back the next day for another lesson. As the young man is leaving, stunned by his good fortune, his teacher says to him “God is patient with the obedient, but he treasures the disobedient.”
Trying to write out stories which have only previously been told aloud is one of the hardest tasks facing a writer. However Mazari and Hillman have done a remarkable job with this collection of capturing the immediacy which exists between the storyteller and his or her audience. In fact, there are times when reading these stories you can hear them being told to you in your mind’s ear. There’s something about the writing style they’ve employed which makes them read like they’re being spoken aloud to you. The more you read, the more this world comes alive until you can almost picture yourself amongst a community as they gather to hear their stories.
Mazari finishes the book off with a collection of recipes for various Hazara dishes. The instructions for preparing the dishes are stories in of themselves as the various asides offer us even further insights into the people’s attitudes towards life. The Honey Thief goes a long way towards belying the impression we’ve been given of the people of Afghanistan as either savages or ignorant peasants desperately needing to be saved by the West. Stories like this collection should be required reading for every journalist or politician prior to them making public statements about Afghanistan.