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From the authors of the bestsellerThe Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif
comes their latest book, The Honey Thief.
A superb collection of spellbinding tales from Afghanistan that portray a vivid landscape of hardship and brotherhood, catastrophes and miracles.Here they share their experiences in writing these books and what we can expect from them next.
Robert: How did you become a writer, in particular of biographies?
When I was a schoolboy a teacher happened to comment in a casual way that my creative writing was very ‘fluent’. I’d never heard the term applied to writing before, and for all I knew the word may not have been a compliment. But I took it as such and my heart swelled with pride. I thought, ‘This is what I’ll do. I’ll write fluently.’ I met that English teacher later in life and reminded him of his comment. He recalled it perfectly. “I hoped you would become a writer,’ he said. ‘And so you have. Well done.’ This was the second compliment I’d received in my life.
When you have taught yourself to write creatively, biography and autobiography is a piece of cake. You employ most of the tricks and dodges and devices of creative writing, but you stick to the facts. Largely.
Robert: How did you find the transition between teaching in high schools and university and becoming a writer?
Most of the writers I know have been writing from a young age. Whatever else you might be doing, the most essential thing is the writing. You might earn a crust as a teacher, as a marine biologist, as a panel beater, but writing is what will make or break you. Once writing has become your fixed star, it is almost impossible to turn your gaze away. George Orwell said that after a certain number of years of professional writing, it is actually harder to stop, whatever disappointments you’ve endured, than to continue.
How did you initially become involved in working with Najaf Mazari?
Cathi Lewis of Wild Dingo Press introduced me to Najaf five years ago. He was her friend. She said: ‘Najaf, Robert is a writer. He could tell your story.’ Najaf said: ‘Maybe.’ Najaf’s story included many episodes of hardship and suffering. An Hazara will only disclose such suffering to a stranger with reluctance since it might sound as if he were complaining, and the Hazara consider complaining unmanly, no matter how severe the suffering. I visited Najaf in his beautiful rug store in Prahran. He offered me a cup of the oddly flavourless tea that Afghanis enjoy. He asked me to talk about my life. I did, not knowing why I had been asked to do so. Najaf studied me with such intensity that I began to feel frightened. But after a half hour, he held a finger to his lips, suggesting that I should be quiet. Then he reached over the table and took my hand. He said: ‘You are the one.’ Our closeness had continued through the writing of The Honey Thief.
Robert: What interests you about the stories of refugees?
After the children-overboard hoax, I began to feel that something was happening in Australia that might leave us all sick with shame in time to come. Our children might one day ask us:
‘But what did you do?’ The opportunity came for me to give a voice to a man who had been
driven from his homeland by the savagery of an implacable enemy, and who had sought refuge in my own homeland. I felt honoured that Najaf had allowed me to tell his story in The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif. But I must say that as I was writing it, my overwhelming priority was to fashion a good book, not to voice my politics.
Najaf: What inspired you to write?
Robert is the writer. I tell him of my experiences and he puts them into words. But if you ask why I wanted to tell Robert of my experiences I must first speak of my friend Robin Bourke. She became my friend when I left the Woomera detention centre ten years ago. My need for a friend was so great. She taught me English and taught me about Australia. She said I must tell my story so that Australians would know the truth. She became a second mother to me. When she read what Robert had written in The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif and The Honey Thief, she said, ‘This is you.’
Najaf: What motivated you to tell the story and tales of the Hazara people?
The Hazara are a tribe. In the world there are many, many tribes. Each tribe has its stories, and the stories want to be told. They want to reach as many ears as possible. A story that is not told will die of loneliness. The stories of the Hazara people are like those of many other tribes, but some things are different. The stories in The Honey Thief will make people say, ‘Now I understand who the Hazara are. Now I understand what makes them different.’
Najaf: How do you think The Honey Thief has helped society, in particular Afghan people, to think differently about the people of your tribe?
I hope that people will love these stories, and I hope that all those who read them will say, ‘The Hazara tell wonderful stories. What interesting people they must be!’
Najaf: How has your life changed since writing The Rugmaker of Mazar-e Sharif and The Honey Thief?
When I first came to Australia I was poor and lonely and my heart was broken. Now I have my
wife and daughter with me to share my life again, and I have a business that is doing well. I am a happy man. But many people back in Afghanistan have not been so fortunate. Income from The Rugmaker and The Honey Thief has permitted me and the friends who help me in Australia to purchase a modern ambulance for my old village in Afghanistan. Very soon, we will build a school. No person can enjoy his happiness if other people are unhappy. It is only when happiness and good fortune are shared that they have any meaning.
What are some of your greatest achievements?
I can tell you only of what gives me happiness. My wife, Hakeema, my daughter, Maria, above all. Then the friends I have made in Australia, especially Robin Bourke, my Australian mother. It gives me pleasure to see my rug shop doing so well. Raising money for the ambulance and the school – that is important. Learning to use my computer properly, and making a Facebook page – I am pleased about that.
Where do you imagine yourself to be in 10 years’ time?
Where I am now, but older and fatter and with more grey hair.
If there was collaboration on a third book what would it be about?
About Afghan traditional rugs, and how they are made, and their history. In the world, hardly anything is more beautiful than a true Afghan traditional rug.
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