Nuri is a beekeeper who works with his cousin and business partner, Mustafa. He lives happily with his wife Afra who is an artist in what was the beautiful city of Aleppo in Syria. As we know brutal war with heavy bombing destroyed the city resulting in trauma and ruined lives. Nuri and Afra are caught up in this crisis.
Sometimes we forget how beautiful Aleppo was because the only images we see on television are the mass destruction of everything and people being killed or made homeless. Nuri’s peaceful life as a beekeeper is taken away from him in Aleppo. Both Nuri and particularly Afra find themselves frozen in grief until they make the painful decision to escape so that they can survive. Their relationship is fraught at times, but in the end hopeful as they struggle to overcome their losses and start again.
It is the opportunity to re-start his life as a beekeeper in England that keeps Nuri going on their long and difficult journey to flee Aleppo. Mustafa escaped earlier and has started an apiary and is teaching fellow refugees in Yorkshire to keep bees. Author Christy Lefteri writes that bees are a symbol of vulnerability, life and hope.
The story re-creates the dangerous boat trips undertaken and time spent in different refugee camps in Turkey and Greece. We experience their day to day life in their tent in the camp, rather than just seeing passing images on the television screen. England seems far away for Nuri and Afra and for much of the time impossible to reach. The Beekeeper of Aleppo is about profound loss, but it is also about love and finding life in the light.
“The heart of the story, however, is not the odyssey across the Middle East and Europe, but the couple’s relationship,” says Lefteri.
The beekeeper of Aleppo is a novel, but Lefteri bases much of it on her own experience of working in Greece in 2016 and 2017 as a volunteer in a UNICEF refugee centre. Each day she watched thousands of refugees flooding into the country trying to escape persecution and war. In writing this book she is able to make Nuri and Afra’s journey seem far from fiction. As the daughter of refugees, Lefteri’s personal understanding of the trauma created by war must have also fed into what she was writing.
We are living in difficult times, compounded by leaders confusing both true and false news. I remember during the study for my PhD the refugee crisis was all over the news. Now it’s nowhere. Where is all that gone? It still exists, people have still been displaced around the world and in Australia alone around 30,000 people are still trying to settle and have their visa applications formalised. They’re still traumatised. COVID 19 is profoundly serious, but I’m concerned that we cannot seem to focus on any other difficult issues.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a wonderful story that brings the refugee crisis to the forefront of our minds. It is an excellent book club read as it has notes and thoughtful questions for discussion included.