Reviewed by Emma Crowley
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.
Many thanks to Bonnier Zaffre via NetGalley for my copy of The Beekeeper of Aleppo to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Leftari is a modern story based on fictional characters centred around the true event that is unfortunately still unfolding day by day with no resolution in sight. The war in Syria has been raging on for many years with so many people forced to flee the place they called home and seek refuge where ever they can. This story follows the journey of Nuri and his wife Afra as they have face no choice but to leave the destroyed city of Aleppo as chaos, destruction, danger and death rains all around them. They have stayed as long as they possibly can but now they have no choice but to flee the evil regime which has thrown so many lives into disarray, lawlessness and uncertainty.
All hope is lost and faced with danger, death, fear and the lack of basic necessities Nuri takes the brave decision to escape under the cover of darkness with the help of a smuggler. When we are first introduced to him the couple are now in the UK staying in a B&B and waiting to see will their application seeking asylum be successful. The novel then moves back and forth between the present day and back to the times pre-war when Nuri can recollect positive times. It also focuses on the various stages of the journey to reach a place where they believed they would find safety, security, friendship and a future.
I've become accustomed to reading books about war, most specifically World War One and Two as historical fiction is a genre that I find fascinating and enjoy reading, but for me the fact that the Syrian War is still ongoing and is featured weekly and daily in news headlines makes The Beekeeper of Aleppo all the more realistic and hard hitting. It's not like the events, places and situations the author writes about took place many years ago and in some way we almost distance ourselves from the fact that they happened because it was so long ago. No, everything that is mentioned here is occurring even as I sit here and write this review and having finished the book it's really not something that should continue to be ignored or forgotten about.
Nuri and Afra are the voice of thousands upon thousands of people who have lost their homes and family members and can no longer view Syria as a sanctuary and a safe place to live. What once was a country filled with beautiful cities and bustling neighbourhoods is now mostly in ruins and the sounds of bombing and fighting are common place and second nature. This book is really an eye opener and yes at times it is a very difficult read given no detail is spared in describing what Nuri witnessed as he travelled across Europe with Afra by his side never knowing would he reach his final destination and be reunited with his cousin and workmate Mustafa who had already made the perilous trip.
Nuri and Afra have come from the worst place on earth that once meant so much to them. Aleppo was where they met and fell in love, where their son Sami was born, and where Nuri and Mustafa were bee keepers transforming their love of bees and nature into a very profitable business. I have seen people ask is the book very detailed in relation to bee keeping given that is the title but it's not, the strands of the story relating to bees are used as a symbol of hope and happiness. For when Nuri was outside tending to the beehives on the hills overlooking his beautiful city of Aleppo that is when he felt at his best but now all that has been taken away from him. His family have suffered such cruelty, loss, devastation and destruction and with their beloved Sami gone and Afra now blind, the reason for which only becomes apparent much later in the story, Nuri feels that he is faced with no other option but to leave. The life he once had is gone forever and he can hold his memories close to his heart but the reality is nothing will never be the same again and he must venture forward into an unknown future in the hopes of reaching the ultimate goal of reaching the U.K.
At first I found it disconcerting that the last word of each chapter was the same word which began Nuri's recollections of his journey. I thought there had been a mistake with the copy I was reading but I soon realised it was a very clever way from the author of bridging the past with the present instead of using specific dates, times and places as subheadings within chapters. As I settled into the story I found it to be a quick read and the writing was beautiful and very descriptive which sounds silly to be saying giving the subject matter and especially due to some of the images conjured up but Christy Leftari does have a very good way with words that before I knew I found I was nearing the end of the book. I was still wondering what the eventual outcome would be and to be honest I thought really that I should have grasped a little earlier what exactly Nuri was experiencing as all the clues were there.
Nuri's yearning for wanting to live in a world that was unbroken takes both himself and Afra on a journey that will shape and alter the people they will become in the future. It's hard to believe that refugees fleeing from Syria and also many different countries go through so much to try and get something that we take for granted every minute of every day. That is freedom and a safe and secure place to call home surrounded by those we love. We see endless reports of little boats capsized in seas carrying innumerable refugees and now it has become the norm but here Nuri through his recollections brings the story to life and no detail is spared even though the images conjured are very difficult to get rid of once they settle inside your head.
Nuri and Afra experience such fear, terror, horror and persecution but really they are placed in such a vulnerable situation as once they get on board and lie in the back of the smugglers truck as it leaves Aleppo their future is in the hands of others. At some stages they depend on the kindness of others but at other times Nuri has to venture to dark places in order to pull them out of the depths of despair. Nuri is brave and selfless and without him Afra would be lost. It was almost like she has shut down and removed herself mentally from the situation and the journey and, even though we do know they reach the UK in the guest house, Afra is no longer the person she once was. But through it all Nuri stands by her and there is no questioning the love he feels for this woman who is his everything and was the mother of his child. But still he is only human and the sense of grief, loss and displacement that he feels echoes through every word he utters and every event and moment he informs the reader of be it through emails to Mustafa or through recounting times spend in migrant camps across Europe.
The power of memory is very important throughout the story and not to be under estimated and Nuri clings to this at every opportunity. The people he has met along the way in particular a young boy named Mohammad provide many opportunities for Nuri to go back from the present day in the B&B to the various stops on his journey with Afra. Of all the most unsettling and disturbing things I read about throughout the book were the scenes set in the park in Athens. No human be they refugee or not should have to endure such appalling conditions where it appears as if people have been forgotten and left there to rot. They reach depths of deprivation which I struggled to comprehend in order just to continue existing in the hopes the final stage of the journey can be embarked upon. Pre-war I am sure Nuri and Afra could never have imagined what the future would bring them but war made them refugees and given they had no choice they had to keep going when it seemed as if everything was lost.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo is an eye opening read which deals with grief, loss and the trauma of leaving what was once home in order to voyage in to uncertainty. It is a thought provoking read that would be ideal for a book club discussion. There are gleams of hope and happiness amongst the sadness and depression but one wonders can Nuri and Afra ever truly experience the wonder, love, enjoyment and peace of mind that existed pre-war? The Beekeeper of Aleppo will take you out of your comfort zone and get under your skin as it raises so many topics relevant to today’s society and our attitudes as a whole towards them. It's certainly a difficult read but nonetheless a necessary one.