This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.
I was very keen to read this book, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, as my youngest son worked in the refugee camps in Calais and he came back with a strong message that these people are, in the main, political refugees and not economic refugees.
Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape. As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.
The author, Christy Lefteri, is the child of Cypriot refugees. She is a lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University. The Beekeeper of Aleppo was born out of her time working as a volunteer at a UNICEF-supported refugee centre in Athens.
As the daughter of refugees, Lefteri’s personal understanding of the trauma created by war fed into the novel she was writing. Her father, a former army officer, did not speak to his children of his experiences in the 1974 Cyprus war. Her mother, who also fled the country, never spoke of the war either.
In the summer of 2016, writer Christy Lefteri travelled to Athens where she spent two months volunteering at a centre for women and children displaced by war. Each day she served tea and biscuits to more than 100 people. At the end of the afternoon, she watched as fathers and sons, who had waited all day for their loved ones, arrived to pick up their wives and mothers, and return to their makeshift homes dotted around the Greek capital.
In 2017, Lefteri returned to Athens and found that the Hope Centre, where she had previously volunteered, had changed from a drop-in centre into an activity centre.
Lefteri spent as much time as possible with Syrian women trying to understand the pain and suffering they had endured. “I think the second year was when it really started to shape the story because I was teaching women, I was holding their babies and you get that real connection. I started to see what strength and hope meant to them.”
Spending long hours with these women helped Lefteri develop the character of Afra, her story’s lead female character who was blinded following a bombing in Aleppo. This grieving mother, who stands stoically by her husband Nuri, the beekeeper of Aleppo, as he descends into despair as they travel through Turkey and Greece, was reflective of so many stories of families passing through Athens.
Having decided that Afra’s husband would be a beekeeper, Lefteri discovered an article written by Dr Ryad Alsous, the academic who had set up Damascus University’s first beekeeping programme, and was now living in Huddersfield. She contacted him through Facebook and he invited her to travel to west Yorkshire and meet his family who had fled Syria in 2013. There, he introduced her to the world of beekeeping.
WHY YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK:
I listened to this book on Audible and the voice of Art Malik is both haunting and emotive. I felt as if I was with Nuri and Afra so strong is the writing. The author has drawn on her experiences and one can feel how much she wants us, the reader, to understand the situation of these refugees
‘This is a novel of international significance. Courageous, provocative, haunting, it will open our eyes’Heather Morris, author of The Tattooist of Auschwitz
This situation still exists, those people have still been displaced, they’re still trying to settle, they’re still traumatised. And yet it is no longer in the news. Read this book, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, and maybe understand a little more of what being a refugee means.