This extraordinary book, derived from the long oral tradition of storytelling in Afghanistan, presents a mesmerizing portrait of a people who triumph with intelligence and humor over the oppressions of political dictators and an unforgiving landscape.
A musician conjures stones to rise in the air and teaches his art to a mute child. Master Poisoner, Ghoroob of Mashad, has so perfected his craft that it is considered an honor to die from his meals. These are stories of magic and wonder in which ordinary people endure astonishing extremes in a world of bloodshed and brotherhood, miracles and catastrophes.
With lyrical wit and profound simplicity, The Honey Thief reveals an Afghanistan of greater richness and humanity than is conveyed in newspaper headlines; an Afghanistan not of failure and despair, but of resilience and fulfillment.
Doesn't that sound brilliant? I was imagining Arabian Nights and The Kite Runner and all sorts of admittedly stereotypical things when I started this book. I didn't quite get what I was hoping for.
First, the book description implies that the stories are set in the far past (at least, to me - Master Poisoner, magic stones...), but it is not. Most stories are set in the 1960s forward.
Second, it's not really about Afghanistan, but about the Hazara, an ethnic minority that lives mostly in central Afghanistan. In fact, the entire first chapter of the book is dedicated to describing the Hazara and how they are unique and all know and love each other in ways that other people can never know.
I admit this immediately made me suspicious because I am wary of the belief that a certain subset of people (especially a tiny racial subset of people) can immediately differentiate each other and know each other's personalities because they all value the same things. Mazari said that if a Hazara man came into his store in Australia and said, "I have no job and no money and nowhere to stay," that he would just open his home to this random stranger and allow him to stay with him because that's just what the Hazara do. It's not that I don't think this is true (though it seems highly risky to me, if not for personal safety, then for the risk of a permanent house guest), it's more - why would you do that for one random stranger but not another? It bothers me.
And that bothered me through all the stories. Every time there was a phrase about the Hazara and their homeland or their sense of community or their secret code of knowing one another just by the blink of an eye, I got a little stomachache.
And while some of the stories were fun and entertaining, there were several that were quite depressing and not very positive. Which is totally fine, of course, unless you are expecting light and fun and amusing tales involving magicians and sly foxes and hijinks. And the 8th century, not the 20th.
So... I dunno. I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I had gone into it with a different mindset, but maybe I wouldn't have because of the whole "Hazara or bust" thing. I did like that there were a lot of recipes included at the end of the book, some of which I definitely plan to try! But this is not a book centered on food or recipes, so you probably shouldn't pick it up just for the appendix. It's a good primer on an Afghanistan that none of us really know - of a people who have survived countless wars with their stories and beliefs and community intact. That's pretty impressive, and well worth learning about, if you are interested in the Middle East.
NOTE: This review is based on an advanced reader's copy. I received a complimentary copy of this book to review.