Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 11, 2019

The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christine Lefteri

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a beautiful, haunting novel that captivated me for two days as I made my way from Wellington to Napier in New Zealand.  As I read it, I couldn’t help but be conscious of how privileged I am.  My entry to New Zealand from Australia was merely a matter of producing my passport, (and I have two that I can choose from), and my journey by rail and road was simply a matter of buying tickets and arriving at my destination safe and sound.  For the central characters in this compelling novel, the journey is an odyssey worthy of Homer.

This is the blurb:

Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape. But what Afra has seen is so terrible she has gone blind, and so they must embark on a perilous journey through Turkey and Greece towards an uncertain future in Britain. On the way, Nuri is sustained by the knowledge that waiting for them is Mustafa, his cousin and business partner, who has started an apiary and is teaching fellow refugees in Yorkshire to keep bees.

As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.

Moving, powerful, compassionate and beautifully written, The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit. Told with deceptive simplicity, it is the kind of book that reminds us of the power of storytelling.

It is just awful to see Before and After images of buildings in what was the beautiful city of Aleppo but The Beekeeper of Aleppo shows us the heartbreaking impact of the civil war on people.  The story is narrated from the point-of-view of Nuri… a man who is maintaining a brave face, taking responsibility for what must be done, caring for his wife stricken by blindness, and being pushed into making very difficult moral choices by the circumstances in which they find themselves.  It is only as this beautifully crafted novel progresses that the reader comes to understand that Nuri is also traumatised and so he is not an entirely reliable narrator.

The couple’s journey is horrendous. From the heartbreak of the bombs in Syria through refugee camps in Turkey, Greece, and Britain, they are always dependent on the goodwill of others for even the most basic of human necessities.  The reader learns that there are people smugglers both good and bad, and that children are especially vulnerable.  Yet Lefteri lightens the mood with Nuri’s reminiscences about his former life as a beekeeper in Aleppo, his joyful memories of his small son Sami, and with descriptions of Afra’s art.

And there is humour: in one sequence in Athens, Nuri feels very uneasy when he sees only women entering a place called The Hope Centre—until it is explained to him that this was a centre for women and children only, a place where they could have a hot shower and a cup of tea, where the children could play and new mothers could nurse their babies.  So he goes back to the park where they have been sheltering and collects Afra, and takes her back to the queue for a shower.  And afterwards there is a droll dialogue between them which gives the reader hope that their relationship will survive:

Afra came out of the Hope Centre smelling of soap, her face soft and gleaming with cream, and she had on a new headscarf.  I suddenly realised how bad I smelt.
‘Afra,’ I said, as we walked back to the park, ‘I stink.’
‘Yes,’ she said, trying not to smile.
‘I need to find somewhere to shower.’
‘Definitely.’
‘It’s bad.’
‘Very.’
‘You could at least try to lie!’
I sniffed at my armpits, surprised at how I’d become accustomed to the smell.  ‘I smell like the streets,’ I said.
‘You smell like sewage,’ she said, and I leant in and tried to kiss her and she scrunched up her face and pushed me away laughing and for that moment we were both the people we used to be.  (p.286)

The authenticity of this novel derives from the author’s experience working for UNICEF refugee centre in Athens.

I wish I lived in a country that took its fair share of the world’s refugees and offered them a generous welcome when they arrived, I really do.

Author: Christine Lefteri
Title: The Beekeeper of Aleppo
Publisher: Zaffre UK, with thanks to Allen & Unwin, 2019, 378 pages
ISBN: 9781785768934
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.


Responses

  1. Australia seems to have become a hard hearted place and it is very testing to hear some of the cruel commentary towards people who are victims of circumstances that they did not create. I don’t think we really consider that it’s having a devastating effect not only on the refugees but those who have to witness the suffering. Sorry to rant but feeling most upset by so many aspects of this country which I believed was making progress towards a more decent society and has regressed so much it is shocking to consider what has been lost.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Fay, I’m just catching up with comments that I missed somehow while I was away in NZ. Reading it now, in the wake of the election result that shows just how hard-hearted the electorate is, honestly, it’s just starting to sink in now that we are home again.
      Maybe it’s because the bookish community is composed of genuinely nice people that it comes as such a shock to see on tonight’s 7.30 report, just how selfish some people are.

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  2. Your last sentence really resonates. It’s bad enough that we should live in such a war-torn world, but that we are hardening our hearts against those in need all over the world. My country doesn’t seem to be going in a particularly great direction either…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, mention is made in the book about countries in Europe closing their borders in what is supposed to be a borderless union, leaving Greece and Italy (not the richest countries in Europe) to cope with the burden. It’s time the UN and the EU did something about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is one book I really want to read. Have you ever read The People Smuggler by Robin De Crespigny, I highly recommend that one if you haven’t. I think books like these should be compulsory reading.

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    • Hello Claire, yes, I agree. I have read The People Smuggler… I heard Robin speak about it at my local library, such an important book.

      Like

  4. I have skirted around this book not being brave enough (head in sand) to pick it up. I find books about war so upsetting. I’m hoping the pendulum swings again in Australia and we do in fact become a kinder nation.

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  5. I have this one. Looking forward to it.

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  6. I can relate to your conclusion. I don’t think I live in a country that does enough and worse than they, we let Greece and Italy deal with the problem.

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    • It’s strange, so many people feel as we do, but the politicians listen to the noisy ones with the opposite opinion…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I know lots of countries have wars but I especially grieve for Syria, Iraq, Libya, Kurdistan, places that might have been ordinary middle class democracies in another world – one in which the US and Israel and lickspittles like Britain and Australia didn’t constantly interfere constantly on the side of right-wing dictatorships.

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    • Careful, Bill, your bias is showing. Russia’s been doing a fair bit of interfering in the Middle East…

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      • I try and make my ‘biases’ clear. USSR had interests in Middle East, originally in support of newly independent governments. Russia is a kleptocracy. Israel uses every means to keep Arab countries weak and divided. US supports dictatorships which give access to its oil companies and is now driven by anti-Islam idealogues like Bolton.

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