The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

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With Syria in the grip of yet another humanitarian crisis, this seemed like a good time to choose this book from my “TBR” pile.  Disappointingly, it says next to nothing about the fascinating history and culture of Aleppo, nor does it even try to explain the causes of the war in Syria, but it does do a reasonable job of conveying the message of the impact that the war’s having, and the experiences of refugees choosing to try to reach Western Europe, especially the exploitation of vulnerable individuals by people traffickers.  Over thirteen million people have been displaced by the Syrian civil war – and I’m assuming that those figures don’t include those displaced by the latest fighting.  “What was lost would be lost forever.  The Crusader castles, mosques and churches, Roman mosaics, ancient markets, houses, homes, hearts, husbands, wives, daughters, sons.”

The beekeeper idea came from a Syrian refugee and professor who’s set up a beekeeping project near the Standedge Tunnel.  It’s only twenty miles away, but I hadn’t heard about it until now, for some reason.  Bees are so deeply symbolic, and can teach people so much.  They work hard and they work together.

The book’s told from the viewpoint of Nuri, who left Aleppo with his wife, Afra, after their young son Sami was killed in a bombing raid, hoping to join his cousin Mustafa in England (the author always says “England” rather than “Britain”). Afra has psychogenic blindness after Sami’s death. It’s told as a series of flashbacks, so we know that they are now in England: we see Nuri thinking back to their leaving Aleppo, travelling to Istanbul, crossing to a Greek island, then being transported to a refugee camp in Athens, and then paying a people smuggler to get them fake passports which enable them to travel to England, where they turn themselves in to the authorities. It says next to nothing about Aleppo, other than a few vague references to souks and food, which I was quite disappointed by. It’s got an absolutely fascinating history, and is a city of many different cultures, and I was hoping that the book would bring that out, but it isn’t really about Syria. Apart from a couple of mentions of President Assad, it doesn’t even talk about the causes or progress of the war.

However, it scores in terms of its depiction of the dangerous journey out of Syria, and of the difficult conditions in the refugee camps on the various stages of their journey. It’s not a book that aims to guilt-trip anyone: it explains that there’s high unemployment in Athens, and that the authorities there are struggling to cope with an influx of people. It also makes a very interesting point about how resources are aimed at those seen as being the most vulnerable, but that other miss out as a result: at one point, they go to a help centre in Athens, and are told that Afra can come in and have a shower, but that Nuri can’t because the centre is only for women and children.

In particular, it addresses the issue of people smugglers. I know Sky News have tried hard to draw attention to this issue, both in terms of people trying to reach Europe from Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere and in terms of people trying to reach the US from Latin America, but it’s something about which there isn’t enough awareness. The flimsy, overcrowded boats. The financial exploitation. And, worst of all, the horrific abuse of vulnerable people. The smuggler whom they approach demands more money, and says that Nuri has to work for him in order to earn it. During Nuri’s absence, he rapes Afra. It’s all told from Nuri’s viewpoint, so we see him coming home to find Afra covered in blood and her clothes torn, and we hear about how he wants to kill her rapist but doesn’t dare because he wants his help, but we don’t hear about the effect of the attack on Afra herself, and I’m not sure that that really works … but then the book is meant to be Nuri’s story.

Nuri’s got such a positive image of England … in his case, a yellow and purple and pleasant land, rather than a green and pleasant land, because he’s envisioning fields of rapeseed and banks of heather and lavender for bees to feed on. As they do. I’m nervy of anything that buzzes and stings, but I had a swarm of bees on the lavender bush in my garden for months this summer, and I got rather fond of them! It’s a romantic image, like you might think of Switzerland as a land of pristine lakes and mountains, Brazil as a land of football and samba or Australia as a land of outdoor sports and barbecues on the beach, but it’s all positive. Yet, if a white English person were to speak like that about England, some aggressive Guardian reader would immediately howl that they were racist and stuck in the 1950s. I got the distinct impression during a recent holiday in the United States that there were similar issues there.

I’ve been watching two travel series on the BBC, both about North America. One is the Hairy Bikers’ Route 66 programme, in which lovely Dave Myers and Si King meet members of many different communities, learn about their cultures, and are friendly and pleasant to everyone they meet, looking for the good in them all. The other is presented by Simon Reeve: I was looking forward to the first episode, because it included Vancouver, one of my favourite cities, but all that Reeve seemed to be interested in was finding excuses to make abusive, insulting comments about both the Canada and the US. I don’t know how we got so divided, but I do know that the world would be a much better place if more people took the Hairy Bikers’ approach and fewer people took the Simon Reeve approach. Like bees, we need to work together, not attack each other.

That’s what the real beekeeper of Syria, an academic from the University of Damascus, now a beekeeper of Huddersfield, wanted to do – not to attack and insult, but to build something positive.  He appealed for help, and a woman from Manchester (I had to get that in!) came forward with a hive of rare British black bees, to get him started.  He’s got lots of hives now, and the bees are producing honey.  It’s a lovely story, and it’s true.

Going back to the book, it’s not actually the most convincing of stories. I know that psychogenic blindness does happen, but it’s rare, and it comes across a bit like a storyline from Dynasty or Neighbours.  And, if they had the money to pay a people smuggler all along, why did they spend so much time in the deeply unpleasant conditions in the camp in Athens first? But it does get a message across, and Christy Lefteri is well-placed to do that, having spent time working with refugees in Athens.  There seems to be no end to this horrific situation in Syria – and it’s hardly just Syria, either.  Throughout history, people have been driven from their homes by war and persecution.  But, in this book, there’s always hope.  It should be a miserable read, but, somehow, it isn’t.  There’s something inspiring there.  It’s not a brilliant book, but I think it’s worth a go.