“What does it mean to see?”
Christy Lefteri asked this question working on her first novel “The Beekeeper of Aleppo.” A daughter of Cypriot refugees, she was drawn to volunteer work for a UNICEF-led refugee center in Athens. The people she worked with wanted to tell their stories despite the language barrier, and she became a witness to suffering. She talked of children drawing pictures of the terrors they witnessed. Lefteri put flesh and bone on subjects like post-traumatic stress disorder, the impact of the war on a country and its people, as well as the harrowing plight of the refugee.
From the first page, I felt like I was reading the personal journal of beekeeper Nuri Ibrahim. He and wife Afra were in limbo. They were stuck between terror and safety as they waited to see if they would stay in England after their long journey from Aleppo in Syria. Nuri and Afra went from Aleppo to Turkey, to a Greek island, to Athens and onto England. Nuri’s thoughts moved between past and present as he began to process all he and Afra have been through. He sometimes made me forget they were “safe” in a B&B in England.
Just like Nuri, I’m still processing this thought-provoking tale. I’m not able to quote from the book because this is an uncorrected copy so I can’t check it yet with a finished one. But some things I’m still thinking about:
Lefteri’s writing style — The first time a word stood out in the chapter I thought I might have a Kindle glitch. I opened the table of contents and saw there was one word in each chapter that led to time-traveling in Nuri’s mind. I was reminded of epic poetry.
The Chinese concept of Yuanfen — Nuri explained this was a symbol on his mother’s red fan. I wrote down – “something that bound two people or things together.” I searched on the web and found an example: Two people were brought together, but something made them part ways and they lose touch. Years later, chance brought them together again and this time they fell in love. (Reminded me of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (Anne Eliot and Capt. Wentworth), I think also of Austen’s novel, Emma (Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax). I could see this working in Nuri and Afra’s relationship. Yes, they were still married, but tragedy reshaped them. They had different reactions to their catastrophic losses. They became untethered from each other, made strangers in the process. It’s like she became a visible reminder of the loss of the son she bore them, Sami.
Afra lost her sight when Sami died. I kept waiting to hear about how this happened. Nuri became her eyes and ears. Afra would demand he tell her each day what he witnessed even if he didn’t want to tell her. At different points, Nuri thought how he could end Afra’s life so she wouldn’t endure further pain. Lefteri created an effective way to put the reader right there with Afra in the darkness. At the same time, I was a witness with Nuri as he described the horrors all around him. Boys lined up near the river and killed. A child playing outside gunned down for sport. It wasn’t long before I realized Nuri had post-traumatic stress disorder. Lefteri gave small hints where Nuri became an unreliable narrator with the clues coming from what other characters could see that he couldn’t. That meant I couldn’t be sure whether some things were real or just in Nuri’s mind.
What bees and hives mean to Nuri – Nuri’s cousin Mustafa was a professor at Damascus University, but he also followed his father and grandfather into the beekeeping profession. He invited Nuri to become a beekeeper because he saw a sensitive soul who had the personality and character to care for them. The hives produced ingredients that Mustafa and daughter Aya would come up with beauty products to sell in her store, “Aya’s Paradise.” Spoiler alert: The war and unrest in the country eventually led to vandals destroying the hives. Mustafa’s wife Dahab and Aya leave the country before he does because he doesn’t want to leave the beehives. When he left, Mustafa wrote a letter to Nuri to follow him. Mustafa and Nuri are both passionate about their work as beekeepers. The sound of bees brought peace to Nuri. His livelihood came at the sacrifice of his own father’s happiness. There were forces binding Nuri together Mustafa that helped propel him forward. He called upon his memory of the bees and the hope of new life ahead as he and Afra journey in treacherous areas. Despite people scoffing at his desire to go to England, Nuri pressed on.
The meaning then of the wingless bee at the B&B – Nuri found a flightless bee that he said would not survive. She was kicked out of the colony. He allowed her to sit in his hand and set her on a flower each night. He would check on her and lift her from the flower each day. The act reminded me Isaiah 41:10 “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold on to you with My righteous right hand.” Hazim, a Moroccan man at the B&B, made him a beautiful gift of a wooden plank with places that held flowers so the wingless bee could live there. I felt that Hazim understood Nuri’s broken places. The B&B worked not unlike a hive in that the people worked together to survive and thrive as they waited for word about their requests for asylum.
Thank you to Netgalley.com and to Ballantine Books for the opportunity to read and review this advanced reader copy. I will never think of refugees the same. I have always liked stories that give me a literary passport to other times, countries, languages, and cultures. Those stories have taken me down new pathways in my mind and soul as the author’s imagination connected with mine. I could see this novel in a multicultural literature course where current events would enhance discussion. “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” comes out August 27, 2019. For more information, go to: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/608250/the-beekeeper-of-aleppo-by-christy-lefteri/9781984821218/. For a good description of Yuanfen, go to https://www.ozy.com/acumen/theres-a-word-for-relationships-written-in-the-stars/72132.