Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
At a time when so many people are being dispossessed of their homes through war and starvation and are moving in search of a safe haven, it is timely that a novel foregrounding the refugee’s perspective is brought to public notice. One can understand that countries close their borders when the numbers become too great but when time is taken to try to understand what some refugees have to endure, as is presented in Christy Lefteri‘s The Beekeeper of Aleppo, one cannot help but feel sorrow and compassion for these displaced people.
A former psychotherapist and daughter of refugees herself, Lefteri spent two months in 2017 at the Hope Centre in Athens, a place mentioned in her story, helping women and children displaced by war. She also returned the following year. From these Syrian women she learned much of the pain and suffering they had endured on their travels. Her own experiences would have given her a greater empathy with these women. This helped her develop the character of Afra, her story’s lead female character who was blinded following a bombing in Aleppo. After her son was shot, this grieving mother, and her husband Nuri travel through Turkey and Greece, on their way to find refuge in the United Kingdom.
The war had not only taken the life of their son and destroyed their homeland but it has also caused a rift between this couple as they both tried to adapt to their circumstance in their own way. I wondered if Lefteri had made Afra blind as a symbol of life for women in Syria. Not able to see and away from her familiar surrroundings, Afra is totally dependent on her husband. When they rest awhile in a new town she sits patiently waiting for his return as his restlessness takes him on his wandering around their new destination.
Often on his return he brings her a gift of paper and colouring pencils which she uses to draw by touch. This activity becomes an outlet for her emotional stress. Nuri does not have this outlet. Afra senses that he is not doing well, that he has changed since Istanbul and that ‘he talks aloud to himself, or rather to someone who is not there’ (247). He does not tell anyone about the nightmares.
Their stay in Athens is in a small village of tents in a park in the city, on a couple of blankets between two palm trees. Their only shelter is a large umbrella that blocks the wind from the north. When darkness descends ‘men gathered in gangs like wolves; Bulgarians and Greeks and Albanians. They were watching and waiting for something; (Nuri) could see it in their eyes. They were eyes of intelligent predators’ (220). People spoke openly about the thieves. They were silent though about the other things that lurked in the shadows.
At first, I found it rather confusing trying to work out if I was in the past or the present in this story but finally decided that Afra and Nuri had achieved their goal to reach England and were waiting to see if they were eligible for asylum in the United Kingdom. As they wait, they can’t help but reflect on all that has happened to them since the war in Syria began.
Lefteri has made the story more personal for the reader by presenting the story in the first person from Nuri’s point of view. The reader becomes involved in the journey and with the main characters’ experiences – feeling the fear of having to cross the wide expanse of water in a small boat knowing that an earlier attempt had resulted in multiple drownings and not having safe accommodation but spending a long period of time in the open square which backed onto the woodland which became so sinister once the sun set. I believe it would be the uncertainty, the hopelessness about their future and the fear of being attacked which would eventually do the most damage as it began to with Nuri.
The only constant that remained in Nuri’s life was his responsibility to his blind wife even though he began to feel alienated from her and his connection, by spasmodic emails, with his cousin, who had finally found asylum and who had taught Nuri about beekeeping. They have a joint goal of once again working together with the bees. Afra sees a resemblance between the bees and their present situation as she says ‘I think the bees are like us… They are vulnerable like us’ (236).
Lefteri includes beautiful descriptions of Aleppo before the war, as well as an insight into beekeeping which adds another dimension to the narrative. Using live experiences as a framework for her story, she is not afraid to highlight the effects of war, including abuses of power, living conditions and the psychological effects it can have.
Lefteri shows us in this moving, compassionate and well written book, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, that her story is not really about whether they reach the destination which has become their goal, but about whether they can reach each other again and rekindle their feelings which were so deep before their world fell apart.
One unique thing about the presentation of the story line is that often the last word of the chapter is found on a page of its own and that same word becomes the first word for the following chapter. While reading this book I was confronted by man’s sometime inhumanity towards his fellow man and by my own feelings of guilt that by comparison my life has been so blessed having never experienced such fear or insecurity. If countries do not accept these unfortunate people then what is to become of them?
I recommend Christy Lefteri’s book, The Beekeeper of Aleppo to all serious readers.
By Christy Lefteri