Thursday, 5 March 2020

The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christy Lefteri

We first meet Nuri and Afra when they are in a reception centre for refugees in England. We learn that Afra was an artist, but now she's blind. We learn that Nuri is haunted by the knowledge that he has killed a man with a bat. He is also haunted by a child called Mohammed, whom no-one but he can see. And we learn that his and Afra's young son, Sami, is dead, but that his mind shies away from thinking of this.

Nuri and Afra are refugees from Aleppo in Syria. As the book slides between past and present, we discover that Nuri was a beekeeper, who worked with his cousin, Mustafa, who was a genius with bees. Mustafa is already in England. He's doing well, thanks to his boundless enthusiasm for bees; he has started up new colonies, and is also teaching other refugees about bee-keeping. He sends encouraging emails to Nuri, he's eager for them to be together again - yet when, after a difficult and dangerous journey, Nuri finally makes it to England, he is curiously reluctant to get in touch with his cousin and tell him that finally, he and Afra have arrived.

In a complex network of flashbacks, we are told what life was like in Alepp before the fighting began. Nuri loved his work with the bees; Afra painted marvellous pictures; their son was a delight to them; they would have Sunday dinner each week with Mustafa and his family. Times were good. But all this changes horribly. Brutal, pointless executions take place every day - in this way, Mustafa's teenaged son Firas is killed, and it is days before they even find his body. Bombs drop indiscriminately: one kills Sami and renders Afra blind. And so they decide to leave. The only way out is with smugglers, via dangerous, massively overcrowded refugee camps. Eventually they make it to England, but it is by no means certain that they will be allowed to stay.

I was given this book for Christmas, but put it aside a couple of times: its subject matter is not easy. But we hear every day of the plight of refugees, and our country, like others, is becoming increasingly hostile to them. We see footage of overcrowded camps, of people in small boats being shot at by soldiers to prevent them from landing, of small bodies lying on a beach. And it feels as if there is nothing we can do, so what is the point of reading about them?

I'm not sure what the practical point is, apart from that maybe, we will be moved by what we read to contribute money to charities working with refugees. But there is a point, of course. Books are a window into other lives. This book shows us very clearly what it is to be driven from your home by an impossible, unbearable situation. It shows us exactly what it is like to live in those camps. It shows us that some people are very bad, but that others are very kind.

Christy Lefteri is herself the daughter of Cypriot refugees, and she has worked as a volunteer at a Unicef supported refugee centre in Athens. She's listened to the stories of many refugees. So she knows what she's talking about.

When Nuri is in England, he finds a bee with deformed wings in the garden of the B&B where he is staying. With the encouragement of another refugee, he begins to care for it. It cannot fly, and he doesn't expect it to survive, but the other man buys small plants which will provide it with food, and Nuri makes up some sugared water for it. Against all the odds, it adapts to its new surroundings - it goes on living, as Nuri and Afra must learn to do, despite all their losses.

It's a wonderful book - Christy Lefteri writes beautifully and handles the flashbacks very skilfully. I hope someone will make a film or a TV serial of it, so that it will reach a wider audience. I hope that our government, and others, will realise that refugees are not just someone else's problem, easy to forget about because they are in a far-off place.

(Apologies that there's no cover image - for some reason I wasn't able to upload one.)