Wednesday, May 8, 2013

THE LANGUAGE OF EXILE




Tragedy and loss are  typical byproducts of wars. It is good to know that in the case of Afghanistan, war and displacement brought  Najaf Mazari  and Robert Hillman together, first as friends, then as literary partners. Their meeting resulted in a collaborative work,  THE HONEY THIEF, a collection of stories based on fact and ornamented with touches of magical realism. It is a book of stories, ruminations on exile and captivating asides on the art of Hazara cookery. Written to be heard as the voice of an unjustly ignored people, it begins with a confession that illuminates the antithetical gifts  of exile--loss and gain.
"I was born in Afghanistan, but I only came to know where my country belonged in the world when I left it." Losing one's home, one's language, one's place in the world,  is no simple matter. One can make out of the loss a story of great pathos and dwell in sorrow for the rest of one's life or one can pick up all that one can salvage such as creativity,  memory, skills--Mazari is a master weaver--and use them all to refashion the ache of what is gone into something of surpassing beauty. That is precisely what Nazari did with Hillman's help.
Loss and how to deal with it is nothing new to Nazari's people, the Hazara, the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. "Afghanistan is land of struggle, more than most, but of all those who live there, none have struggled like the Hazara. Perhaps this is because we are a mystery people; no one knows for certain where we came from... Many believe we are the descendants of Genghis Khan's warriors who swept down from Mongolia eight hundred years ago and overran China, northern India and the whole of Central Asia." " Ethnic and linguistically distinct--they speak Dari, a Persian language--the Hazara are also a religious minority,  Shi'ites in a land of Sunni Moslems. Whether these differences explain the conflicts that divide them from other Afghan groups  is a question for another book. THE HONEY THIEF brings salients events in  Hazara history to the reader, but its main function is to preserve the core of Hazara oral tradition, "My heart and mind, my bones and flesh and all the organs of my body are bound together with the cords of the stories I was told. They made me Hazara, week by week, tale by tale."
Together, Nazari and Hillman make an impressive case for the connection between language and  identity. "A tribe is world." Language defines you, "When I found myself living among English speaking people, it was like wearing handcuffs and irons on my legs. Every step was painful and difficult." First a shepherd, then a weaver, once a citizen of Afghanistan and now a citizen of Australia and a businessman, Nazari juggles roles and languages as most exiles do. Stripped  down to the essentials, though, he  is a Hazara storyteller.His stories are lovely and so are the characters who inhabit them. There is Abbas, the skeptic who demands that his grandfather prove his stories are true, "When a brown bear sits and talks to me, I will believe you..." There is Abdul Haliq,  "whose life was destined to end in pain and sorrow..." and who lives in Hazara stories after being executed for the death of a tyrant; Karim Zam, the mad rabab (string instrument)  player and his pupil, who learns that "The moon that is hidden has a voice., Each star that you cannot see has a voice of its own.The mountain... has  a voice. The fox has its voice as it searches for the eggs of the bulbul and another voice when it hunts  hares.The tula ( a flute) alone knows the voices of the world..." Hameed Behsudi's courtship of the contentious  Nadia is not to be missed. Neither is any chapter of this moving tribute an unconquerable people.

As if this treasure trove of Hazara tales were not rich enough fare, Nazari and Hillman throw in an incredibly amusing final chapter,  The Cookbook of the Master Poisoner Gorhoobe-Astab of Mashad.The recipes can stand alone, but Nazari's banter is priceless. The food, the Poisoner would say, is to die for.Clara Castelar

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