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Chapter  4

Honey’s in the Air  

What can you taste in honey? This chapter revolves around the flavors and scents of honey, collected from across Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as our own apiary. Describing unique flavors, the chapter tries to recover what eludes the taste buds but nonetheless figures centrally in the production, composition, and powerful medical efficacy of honey. Surprisingly, this effort to track the substance’s elusive qualities requires examining complicated histories: of inter-ethnic war and of the post-war, fast-changing environments that make the nectar flow essential to honey creation increasingly uncertain and scarce. “Honey’s in the air,” local beekeepers tend to say, hinting in their phrase at a vernacular theory about vagaries and about cause and effect: natural, meteorological, ecological, human, and human-historical—and always subtly mixed, like honey itself.

Spring at the Apiary Sounds Like...(birds, bees, dhikr)

Our village at dawn, sounds like... (Notes on wind & air)

Azra and I rushed out of the house before dawn and sat at the garden table, shivering in the cold. She set up her tough-looking, portable sound recorder, and we waited patiently, wearing only wool sweaters in order to minimize our clothing’s noise in the audio recording. From the attic window I often listen to the sounds of dawn drawing to the village, but this time we decided to capture it and share it, so we laid in wait, so to speak. And then when it arrived, it disarmed my watchfulness--left me instead with a feeling much softer than “watching” implies. It came so softly that it nearly evaded the audio register. How do you “capture” an experience, anyhow? Let alone “share” it. We can only ever have an experience again and anew, each on her own terms. Did you “get” this dawn, at your end? Did it feel like anything familiar or even like an event? Did you notice the wind, how tentative it sounded at first, then menacing. In the age of extreme weather, wind sounds are disturbing those who listen to them with bees or storms in mind, in part because wind impedes bees’ flight and dries up nectar flow.

In general, it is mostly disturbances that make us register “air,” the atmospheric media we utterly depend upon. We are bound to notice foul air, a lack of air, or air gathering force as a wind; otherwise, the thing that sustains us receives no attention. We leave it to the experts—on the atmosphere, on pollution—to define it for us or to report on its characteristics. But what if we “read” the air with different sources? Would we encounter its subtle presence differently? Might we be moved by the sounds of dawn and the airy traces in it? I have been reading Sufis on air. Ibn al-‘Arabī, a 13th-century Sufi known as the Greatest Shaykh (Shaykh al-‘Akbar), wrote that, wind or storm aside, air always “stirs”; if it were to come to rest, every thing that breathes would perish. “And every thing in the world breathes,” he adds. Not just animate things--mobile and sentient--but objects as well, “breathe.” Life, according to this view, is about being involved in a Divine process of ongoing giving-taking. This is because, Ibn al-‘Arabī notes, God described Himself as “breathing”: He breathes life into forms. The life and existence of every thing in the world arises from God’s “breath,” which is not quite like ours (since nothing is like Him). Yet a comparison can be made. Through and in Divine breath, the world comes about, again and again. Without it, it would cease. The Greatest Shaykh goes further: air itself is “one immense living being. Like other embodied beings, air has a spirit and the capacity for understanding”. The same can be said for everything else—breath and life are not devoid of spirit and a consciousness of sorts. Looking around through the lenses of Ibn al-‘Arabī, a new kind of world might dawn on us. It would be world of different encounters--‘Hello wind!’ or “Salam, Wind, peace!, “Good morning Birds,” “Lovely morning, comrade Garden Table, don’t you think?” “Hello, gorgeous Flowers, I missed you since last night.” Our early morning hunt for sounds, Azra’s and mine, would be a more respectful, reverent exercise.  She must be kidding, you might think to yourself, and of course I am, writing these winking lines, but all the same, this is no joke. The world Ibn al-‘Arabī paints, thus, is a world of utter responsibility. And he’s not the only one who views things—their aliveness, our bearing to them—in this way.

I asked Shaykh Ayne, my Sufi guide to this ethnographic project, to think with me about breath. We had been at it for a month, reading and returning to the issue, when, one December morning, we happened upon some striking lines, recorded by the disciples of the  Bosnian Shaykh Hajji, a great ālim, knower, and a mufti, a legal scholar from the early 20thcentury, who is in the spiritual genealogy of Shaykh Ayne. This is how the lines read:

     “Every breath that you draw in, comes to you from the Exalted, clean and new. Every
breath you exhale goes back to the Exalted and never returns. Arriving to you is ever a new breath. Therefore, the way you receive it—clean-—is how you should return it: clean. Or else you’ll be ruined (helać).”

I heard a hint of a threat at dawn, for sure. Mixed up with all that soft, fresh awakening of things. Perhaps it was the threat itself that illuminated the world, making it stand out, so frail.


1 Muhyiddin Ibn al-‘Arabi, Mekanska Otkrovenja, trans. Salih Ibriševićand Ismail Ahmetagić(Sarajevo: Ibn Arebi, 2007), 427.

2 Ibn al-‘Arabi, Mekanska Otkrovenja,428.

3 Ibn al-‘Arabi, Mekanska Otkrovenja, 425.

4 Husni efendija Numanagić, Kazivanja Dervišima (Sarajevo: Dobra knjiga, 2018).

Taste the Honey

What do we taste by tasting honey....

                                                                                                                    video, 4:14 min. 2018

This video essay was composed for Translating Vitalities Collective, Istria,
Summer of 2018.