The Beekeeper of Aleppo.
Zafre (Allen & Unwin). 2019. 278 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78576 893 4.
I am scared of my wife's eyes. She can't see out and no one can see in. Look, they are like stones, grey stones, sea stones. Look at her... Her laughter was gold once, you would have seen as well as heard it. Look at her because I think she is disappearing.
We meet Nuri first as he helps his blind wife, Afra, to dress. It is not until later in the book that we learn how she became blind but it is clear that it happened suddenly and recently. Nuri, too, has changed. His dreams are of murder—a murder he seems to have been involved in. He dreams, too, of his small son, Sami. And he is waiting for Mohammed, a lost, orphaned waif who calls him "Uncle Nuri," to find him.
All of this takes place in an English seaside house where refugees are boarded until their asylum claims have been processed. But a single word, "Bronze" links a refugee's watch to the second chapter of the book where bronze is "the colour of the city far below": Aleppo.
Aleppo, is where Nuri and Afra fell love, married, had a son, and
"lived in a two-bedroom bungalow on the hill. From so high we could see all the unorganized architecture and the beautiful domes and minarets, and far in the distance the citadel peeking through."
In Aleppo, Nuri and his cousin, Mustafa, had been beekeepers. Starting with just a few hives they had harvested and sold honey, invented recipes for honey-based cosmetics and soap, and had become beekeepers on a grand scale. As Nuri remembers:
"I had four beehives in the garden, piled one on top of the other, but the rest were in a field on the outskirts of eastern Aleppo... We produced at least ten tonnes of honey a year. There were so many bees, and they made me feel alive. When I was away from them it was like a great party had ended."
The families were close. But it was after one of their regular Saturday dinners that Mustafa raised worries about the political situation: "Things will get bad. We all know it, don't we? But we're trying to continue living as we did before." When the trouble starts, he sends his wife and daughter away from Aleppo but keeps his teenage son, Firas, with him, planning to join them later in England. Then one night vandals set fire to the beehives. Nothing is left. And before Mustafa and Firas can leave, Firas is brutally murdered. Mustafa leaves alone.
Although the murders and bombing get worse, Nuri cannot persuade Afra that they, too, should go. Only when Sami is killed by a bomb blast and Nuri's life is threatened does she finally agree. So, they begin the dangerous and often terrifying journey from Aleppo to Istanbul, then to a refugee camp in Greece, and, finally to England.
Chapters alternate between their lives in England and Nuri's descriptions of the long journey as refugees, which has left them with terrible memories and which has made them almost strangers to each other. Afra is locked in her blind dependence on Nuri, her silences and her solitude: Nuri is plagued by memories, nightmares and his strange hallucinated meetings with the lost boy, Mohammed.
Because we get to know Nuri and Afra so well, we feel for them and worry about them. Nuri gets to know two other refugees in the boarding house in England. Each is from a different country and each has made their own hazardous way along refugee trails to England. All three are terrified of being sent back to their own countries where their lives are endangered and where they have suffered and seen the most terrible things. And all three men fear the interviews with the English immigration officers which will decide whether or not they will be granted asylum.
Afra, too, must be interviewed but first she must see a doctor about her eyes. In Aleppo Afra was an artist: now she draws by feeling the lines with her fingers. She cannot see, but the doctor can find no physical damage. He draws from her the exact circumstances of her sudden blindness, and its link with Sami's death.
For both Nuri and Afra there is hope, but it is fragile.
This book is beautifully written. There is warmth, compassion, love and beauty in it, especially associated with the bees, which, for Nuri, become a fine thread joining Aleppo and England. But there is also aching sadness, and shocking descriptions of the things refugees have to endure and the horrors, degradation, corruption and violence in some refugee camps.
Christy Lefteri's own parents were refugees from Cyprus. But it is the work which she did as a volunteer at a Unicef supported refugee centre in Athens, and the stories she was told by refugees there which led her to write this book. She has said that these people wanted their stories to be heard, and this has been her way of doing this.
The danger with The Beekeeper of Aleppo, is that Lefteri tells the story of Nuri and Afra so powerfully and movingly that you become absorbed by her story-telling and forget that it is based on real life and on things which are going on in our own world here and now. Nevertheless, Christy Lefteri has done a superb job of creating empathy and understanding for individuals and families who are fleeing from intolerable situations in the hope of finding safety and security.
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