Category Archives: book review

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

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.

The Kabul Peace House

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.  

The words of Margaret Mead inspire the unlikely hero of this book, Afghan doctor Insaan, to establish a hopelessly idealistic project: to build and maintain a community of young Afghans devoted to the principle of non-violence.

Insaan has brought together a group of men and women with harrowing backgrounds from Afghanistan’s rival groups including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.  Usually fighting each other in a bitter tribal warfare that has torn Afghanistan apart for decades, the 40 young people start to build peaceful multiethnic communities. 

The Kabul Peace House is a book of fascinating opportunity by well-known writer and community worker Mark Isaacs.

To contrast this compelling story Isaacs also documents the depressing history of Afghanistan which has been wracked by war since the Soviet invasion of 1979.  This brutal conflict lasted ten years and was followed by years of civil war and then an invasion led by the US post 9/11 to defeat the Taliban.  While hope is shared among the young people of the Kubul Peace House it is hard not to feel a sense of déjà vu as the Taliban once again rise to take back power and feudal wars continue.

Isaac’s characters are large on the page including Hojar, a young woman making a new life for herself with education and Horse, a child shepherd supporting his family of eight. They and others risk their lives to join this radical experiment – a glimpse of what a new Afghanistan could look like. People come and go throughout the story as the Peace House moves from the mountains to other humble sets of premises.

Issacs starts his book with the following questions:

“What kind of world are we becoming when 65 million people do not have a safe place in their own countries?   What kind of world are we nurturing and accepting?”

If you are interested in discovering how small pockets of communities interested in peacebuilding not violence can make a difference, this is a book for you.

The Kabul Peace House reminds us that even in the most challenging times, hope, love, and peace can flourish. 

Violin Lessons

I know that reading is going to be a great solace for me as Coronavirus forces us to spend more time at home. I have done several book reviews on the More to the story website blog and I plan to do others as I am forced to spend time alone which is good thinking and writing time for me.

If you are looking for something different to read I hope you will find my book reviews helpful.  Arnold Zable, one of my favourite Australian writers, has just released a new book called The Watermill.  I have just bought it from my local bookstore and it is readily available from on-line book sellers.

This review however is of an earlier work from Zable – a collection of short stories called Violin Lessons. It is a favourite of mine because it explores displacement and exile in different times and settings including stories from the Jewish refugee experience through to the Greek and other European immigrant experience.   A young boy plays the violin for his mother in Melbourne. Nina Simone sings ‘Pirate Jenny’ in a bar in Berlin. A fisherman plays a flute on the Mekong. And the strains of Paganini resonate in the forests of eastern Poland. From the cabarets of 1940s Baghdad to the streets of war-torn Saigon and the canals and alleyways of present-day Venice, music weaves through each of these stories.

The Ancient Mariner, the longest story in the collection describes Amal’s journey to Australia by boat as an asylum seeker and the trauma that she suffered as she struggled to stay alive after her boat capsized. She was forced to hang onto a dead body to stay afloat waiting for help.

Zable met Amal recovering from the trauma of nearly drowning at sea and was with her years later at the time of her death from cancer. As a trusted friend he promised to write her story. Despite these two tragic events, this is a truly uplifting story and reminder of our shared humanity.

Zable writes of documenting her story. “Five years after her death I am fulfilling my promise. Yet each time I sit down to write, anxiety rises for fear I will not do the story justice, will not find the words to convey the terror and beauty of Amal’s telling…”

He finds the words; words so lyrical in the choosing that I have to read them several times for their beauty.  Zable is one of Australia’s great storytellers.   I hope you enjoy his work.

violin lessons

A world of stories

 

Refugee Week, 16 -22 June, provides a wonderful opportunity for people around the world to celebrate the contribution refugees make to our society.  It’s also a time to raise awareness, remembering and honouring the often-perilous journey that refugees have taken to reach Australia and other countries.

Logo

For many people, Refugee Week provides an opportunity to meet a refugee for the first time. This year’s theme for Refugee Week is A World of Stories which makes food the focus and asks you to “Share a meal, share a story…”  With that in mind, the Refugee Council is encouraging businesses, community groups, schools, and individuals to hold a food event (breakfast, morning tea, dinner) where they can hear stories from this year’s Refugee Ambassadors, while sharing some of their favourite meals. This can be done by either inviting a refugee to your event, watching a video or listening to stories in other ways.

There’s a lot of information on the website and similar organisations around the world also provide advice.  If you are planning an event in Western Australia, I can highly recommend the speakers bureau at the Youth Affairs Council of WA.  For a modest fee, a young person is available to talk, share their story and answer questions.

There are many public events around the world for Refugee Week.   If you do nothing else, take time on World Refugee Day on 20 June to look out for some stories such as this one about a woman whose parents came to Australia after the second world war.

Or you could buy a book.  Behrouz Boochani’s book about his imprisonment on Manus Island No friend but the mountains  is excellent, or They cannot take the sky, a collection of direct testimonies as stories, is also a thoughtful read. I have a suggested reading list on my website you may like to investigate.

I will be thinking about my new friends – those refugees who entrusted me with their stories, and the positive lives they have built for themselves here in Australia.

gor-davtyan-share-a-meal-02-768x576

A big weekend of stories and ideas

Regular readers and those of you who know me, understand I am a big supporter of Literary Festivals around the world.   They bring readers and writers together in exchange of stories and ideas.   There’s time for laughter, sadness and reflection.  The Perth Writers Week has just concluded, and I have to say it lived up to expectations.  Here’s some of the writers I interviewed and saw in action which might provide some good reading tips.

What fun I had with children’s writer Dianne Wolfer as we discussed navigating children’s literature at the Perth City Library.   We were lucky enough to have a really engaged group of librarians, teachers and parents attend, all of whom contributed their own ideas and suggestions.  Dianne will be blogging soon about a resource list of ideas she has put together.   I’ll send links once I get it.

Dianne Woolfer and Rosemary Sayer

Dianne Woolfer with Rosemary

The highlight of the festival for me was attending a Sunday breakfast chaired by the fabulous Alan Dodge, former Art Gallery of WA Director and art historian.  Amanda Curtin, Gail Jones and Amy Sackville were the guests and it was a wonderful opportunity to travel through their books each with an art focus.   The conversation was entertaining and informative – it was a really lovely way to spend a Sunday morning.

Alan Dodge, Amy Sackville, Gail Jones and Amanda Curtin

Alan Dodge, Amy Sackville, Gail Jones and Amanda Curtin

On the last day I chaired a panel with a variety of authors who all grappled with the concepts of freedom, identity and language. Heather Morris, Future D Fidel, Balli Kaur Jaswal and Carly Findlay, are very different people who have written vastly different books. It was interesting however to identify and explore some commonality within the themes we discussed. I highly recommend their books.

Heather Morris, Future D. Fidel, Balli Kaur Jaswal and Carly Findlay

Heather Morris, Future D. Fidel, Balli Kaur Jaswal and Carly Findlay

If you have never been to a writer’s festival, look out for one near you.   You can go by yourself or with a friend.  It’s an opportunity to hear from authors and thinkers you know or find new ones to get to know.   You don’t have to do anything other than buy a ticket, turn up and be prepared to enjoy yourself.

Woman2Drive

This month Manal al-Sharif was planning to return to Saudi Arabia, the country of her birth, to drive freely down the main streets on her own, when a ban on women driving is lifted.

However, as the historic date of 24 June drew closer Manal received death threats while six other prominent human rights activists have been detained in Saudi Arabian prisons.

She decided it is safer for her to stay in Australia where she now lives.  “I think I can be a stronger human rights advocate outside of Saudi Arabia where my voice can be heard around the world. They would lock me up again if I returned,” she said in a recent interview.

Manal has been part of a movement in the Saudi Kingdom advocating for women’s rights and the right to drive a car without a male chaperone. Her memoir Daring to Drive also gives us rare personal insights into everyday life for women in the country.

The book describes her strict commitment to Islam in her younger years and how that slowly changed.  Manal graduated from university with a Bachelor of Science focussed on computer science.  She then secured a position as an information security consultant, one of the few women to do so, at Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil company.  It was from this point in time that she sought fearless ways to break through taboos.  It was not easy, as the opening paragraph shows.Manal al Sharif

‘The secret police came for me at 2 in the morning. As soon as I heard the words Dhahran Police Station, I was terrified. My brother slammed the door shut and locked the bolt. There was a pause. Then the knocking started again.’

Manal spent a week in a cockroach infested prison for driving a car.  She did not commit a traffic offence, but the police told her she ‘broke orf’ – a tradition, custom or practice.

When I interviewed Manal at the recent Perth Writers Week, she still seemed a little surprised that her book has become a best seller around the world.  Manal has also been recognised with the Havel Prize for Creative Dissent Award at the Oslo Freedom Forum and Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential women in the world.

‘I have always wanted to tell my story.  I am a Muslim girl born in Mecca and now I am an activist.  I did not know my story would be of interest,’ she told me.

I can assure you it is… I highly recommend her memoir.

Stories that shape us

Isn’t this a great theme for a writer’s festival?   I’m looking forward to participating in the Margaret River Readers and Writers festival that runs from 1-3 June in the picturesque south west of WA.

Each of us builds a narrative about ourselves and I’m lucky enough to interview three writers with many layers to their stories. Even though two are fiction writers, each has been influenced by their own stories.

Still glowing from her Stella Award short listing, I will interview my friend Shokoofeh Azar about her book The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It is a chance for us to visit the world of magical realism and understand real life events in Iran after the 1979 revolution. It is the moving story of a family told in the style of classical Persian literature.  Here is an excellent interview with Shokoofeh that gives you some more information.

My second interview is with Mohammed Massoud Morsi an Egyptian/Danish/Australian writer. If you visit his website you’ll see he is a photographer and so much more. I spent two hours with him over coffee this week and we could have talked for much longer. We will be discussing his latest book, Twenty Two Years to Life, which is a work of fiction, based on a true story. His raw and powerful words took me, as the reader, to the realities of daily life for an ordinary family living in Gaza.

My final interview is with Sisonke Msimang. We will trace her life through the lens of race, gender and democracy. Sisonke’s memoir is called ‘Always Another Country’. If you get a chance have a look at her TED talk. you will hear her question our emphasis on storytelling, as well as spotlight the decline of facts.

I round out my festival participation in an enticing session called Coffee and the Papers on Sunday morning. Fellow panellists Ian Parmeter, Nikki Gemmel and Chris Nixon and I will dissect recent news events. Should be interesting!

I’ll let you know about any new writers I discover at Margaret River.

Enlightenment of the greengage tree cover  twenty-two-years-to-life cover  always another country book cover

Writing is like breathing

I am thrilled for my friend Shokoofeh Azar, who has been shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize.

A major literary award, the Stella Prize seeks to recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature and champion cultural change. Named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, Stella Maria Sarah ‘Miles’ Franklin, the prize was awarded for the first time in 2013.

On a previous blog I reviewed Shokoofeh’s book The enlightenment of the greengage tree and I highly recommend it to everyone.

I also recommend listing to a great interview with her on the Stella website. It’s a Q&A format and I just love Shokoofeh’s answers: “First of all, I am a writer because I can’t stop myself writing. Writing, like breathing, is essential to my life. Secondly, it’s the only way I know to fight for my values in Australia and Iran, and for humankind.”

The 2018 Stella Prize winner will be announced this week – on the evening of Thursday 12 April.

Books of the year

I love this time of the year when you can sink into a good book. Depending on where you are in the world, you could be reading in your deck chair in the summer garden or snuggled up in your favourite chair by the fire. I’m really looking forward to taking a break from work and study and some guilt-free reading time

As the year comes to a close it can be a time for reflection, regardless of your culture or religion. I’ve been thinking about the many interesting and inspiring books I have read this year and wanted to give you some recommendations. It’s hard to pick the best but I have chosen two fiction and two non-fiction books for your summer/winter reading list or as a Christmas gift suggestion.

Fiction

Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenement of the Greengage Tree is an introduction to the wonderful world of magical realism and I highly recommend this for a different reading experience.

This year I re-read an old favourite and thought I would include it. Café Scheherazade by Arnold Zable traces the experience of Jewish survivors whose lives reflect the courage of refugees everywhere.   Arnold is one of my favourite authors – a master story teller.

Non- fiction

City Of Thorns by Ben Rawlence is my stand out book for the year.   It traces nine lives in the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab in Kenya. It is haunting and at the same time inspiring.   I was lucky enough to meet and interview Ben at this year’s Perth Writers Festival.

Not Quite Australian by Peter Mares is easy to read and informative at the same time.  I learnt so much from this book. Peter discusses how temporary migration is changing Australia. Did you know there are more than a million temporary migrants living in Australia today? Case studies, personal stories and supporting data are compelling in this book.

There are so many more books and I am sure you have your own favourites… I’d love to hear from you about your list. 

Season’s greetings to all and happy reading.

P.S. I am really looking forward to a new release called The Power of Good People – surviving Sri Lanka’s Civil War by Para Paheer with Alison Corke.

 

 

A Country of Refuge

I really enjoyed the anthology edited by Tom Keneally and Rosie Scott. A country too far features fiction, memoir, poetry and essays about seeking asylum by 27 of Australia’s best writers including: Anna Funder, Kim Scott, Raimond Gaita, Christos Tsiolkas, Gail Jones, Les Murray and Dorothy Hewitt.

It was released in 2013 and I can remember attending a writer’s festival event to hearTom and Rosie talk about how the book came together. Rosie talked about the way in which the best writers can get to the heart of things because of their clarity of language and powerful insights. Tom, in in his eloquent way, reminded politicians that the inflammatory and inaccurate language they were using was de-humanising. In the introduction to the book he wrote “the fact that they are talking about the most marginalised people on earth – deeply traumatised refugees who have lost their countries, homes and families through disasters of every kind – is lost in a storm of venom and cliché.”

It is a powerful book of unique voices and experiences.

Little did I know that it also inspired another book in another country. While on holiday, I spent my obligatory self-indulgent morning trailing over all the floors of Foyles A Country of RefugeBookshop in London and came across A Country of Refuge – an anthology of writing about asylum seekers by outstanding British and Irish writers.  Editor Lucy Popescu conceived of the idea in 2014 when she received her copy of A country too far just as the European refugee crisis began to make news when thousands of people fled across the Mediterranean into Europe.

Featuring outstanding writers like Sebastian Barry, Rose Tremain, Marina Lewycka and William Boyd, it takes the same approach as A country too far, combining, memoir, short fiction and essays with poetry. Barry’s opening short story ‘Fragment of a journal, author unknown’ recalls Ireland’s famine years in the nineteenth century when tens of thousands of starving people risked voyages across the Atlantic in hazardous coffin ships. Many disturbing parallels can be drawn between the exodus of the famine years and the current refugee crisis.

The book is poignant and thought-provoking.

Both anthologies are highly readable and can be picked up and put down as the mood strikes, which given the topic, is not a bad way to read and reflect on them.

Barbara Kingsolver, praising the skill required to write a memorable short story, described the form as entailing ‘the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces.’ All The writing in A Country of Refuge and A country too far may be short, but you won’t forget what you read for a long time.

A Country of Refuge – edited by Lucy Popescu (Unbound, 2016)