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.

 

Arabia with Levison Wood – Discovery

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“Arabia” – a region which used to be associated with dashing explorers and adventurers, Scheherezade’s stories and magic carpets. Iraq – all the history of Mesopotamia, Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Ur and Nineveh. I was really hoping that this programme would get beyond the image of the Middle East as a place that’s all about conflict and terrorism, and show us its history and cultures. Even a few falafels and a bit of oud music would have been a start. Instead, most of what we got was close-up coverage of the war against Islamic State. We see that on the news all the time: I really didn’t need to see it here too.  It was very interesting, although for some reason it made absolutely no mention of the Yazidis or the Assyrians; but it was nearly all about war, and there’s so much more to the Middle East than that.

This first episode started off in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, close to the border with Syria, with the team being stopped from crossing the border into “federal Iraq” as tensions rose due to a referendum on Kurdish independence. The West let the Kurds down very badly after the First World War, and again after the Gulf War of 1990/91. The vast majority of people in Iraqi Kurdistan want independence, and that’s without even starting to talk about the Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere; but it’s not happening. I’d like to have heard more about Kurdish history and culture, but instead it felt more like an Indiana Jones film, with Levison & co making a dramatic dash to get to another border crossing before it closed for the night.  Very action movie, but not very informative.

Their next stop was Mosul. They stayed in a military safehouse – and took a taxi to the front line of the war against Islamic State. As you do. What we did see was very interesting – and very distressing, as we learnt that a man whom Levison interviewed had been killed by Islamic State only a week later, and heard a woman describing about how she’d been separated from her baby several months earlier and hadn’t seen him since. But there was no reference at all to what had been done to the Yazidis and the Assyrians, and, although we saw the horrific destruction wrought by the bombings, we didn’t hear about the damage done to historic/cultural sites – we were just shown piles of rubble. It didn’t even mention that Mosul was on the site of Nineveh – OK, whether or not people believe stories about blokes being thrown off ships and eaten by whales is up to them, but the point is that this is a city so ancient that it’s mentioned in the Old Testament.  Surely that merited at least a quick name check?

Obviously I’m not saying that a legend from thousands of years ago is more important than the terrible suffering of people today, but some background information and context would have been nice. It sometimes felt that the main aim of the programme was to be daring. Getting to the front line of the war against Islamic State. In a taxi!

Not that far from the devastated centre of Mosul, we saw shops and cafes – but we didn’t get to see any Iraqi cuisine. One good point that was made was that there were no women around, only men. That said a lot.

Then on to Baghdad. Things seemed pretty normal there, but all we got was people sitting around and talking about war – nothing about the traditions and lifestyles and history.  We did get to see Saddam Hussein’s bunker, though. But nothing about the city’s incredible history as a centre of learning and culture.  And not a falafel in sight.

The best bit actually came at the end, when Levison visited the marshlands in southern Iraq. He didn’t even mention that this was literally by the rivers of Babylon, though. Even if you’re not into either history or religion, or indeed Boney M, surely you’d mention the fact that you were by the rivers of Babylon?! Apparently not.

I well remember hearing about the Marsh Arabs back in 1991, but, as public attention moved away from Iraq after the war, I don’t think we really heard much about how Saddam Hussein ordered the marshes to be drained, displacing many of the Marsh Arabs and doing horrific damage to the ecosystem. It was good to see that things are looking up now, and to hear interviews with both men and women involved in traditional work in the marshlands. This was more the sort of thing I’d been hoping for.

Next week’s episode will include Yemen, and I very much hope that it might bring some attention to a tragically under-reported conflict – but I’m also hoping to hear more about the people of the places visited, and not just the politics.  Maybe it’s not as dramatic as mad dashes for border crossings, but I think we hear enough drama where the Middle East’s concerned!  Let’s hear about other things as well.

 

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

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This is a very well-written children’s book, telling the story of a family of Syrian asylum seekers in Manchester in the style of a traditional ballet book, with the Mary Martin/Miss Arrowhead role of the fairy godmother ballet teacher poignantly being filled by an elderly lady who came here as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis.  It really does get across the messages of the situation in Syria and the issues faced by asylum seekers – and also the teacher’s experiences as one of the Kindertransport children eighty years earlier, making the point that there are refugees in every generation – in a way that the intended audience, probably children aged around 9 to 12, will be able to understand. Older readers will get a lot from it too.

11-year-old Aya, her mum and her baby brother have come to Manchester from Aleppo: what’s happened to her dad isn’t explained until later on.  At the start of the story, they’ve already been here for several months, but there are flashbacks to what happened in Syria.  I’m not normally keen on books which jump around like that, but I can see that starting in Aleppo and describing the war there might have been too much in a children’s book.  Like many people fleeing Syria, they’d led a happy and comfortable life there, the dad being a doctor – who’d spent some years working in the UK and spoke fluent English, which he’d taught Aya.

They came to the UK via Turkey and Greece, so, because they should have claimed asylum in Greece, the first EU member state they came to, their claim for refugee status in the UK is complicated. I don’t want to get political – and the issues around the asylum situation are far more multifaceted than the author seems to want readers to believe, even allowing for the fact that she’s writing for children – but I don’t think anyone could argue that the asylum claim process isn’t inefficient and doesn’t take too long; and we see that the family are in limbo for months whilst they wait for a decision.  They receive help from volunteers at food banks and advice centres, but also meet with some hostility from their landlord when they cannot pay their rent.  The author’s keen to make the point that her characters have their pride: when a kind girl gives Aya some old leotards and ballet clothes that she’s grown out of, Aya feels uncomfortable about being seen as a charity case.

The book doesn’t try to explain all the complexities of the war in Syria and who’s on which side and why – does anyone, never mind a child of around 11, actually understand that? – but it explains that attacks on peaceful protests spiralled into civil war, and it doesn’t shy away from describing bombings and telling us that Aya lost friends in the bombings, and that other people she knew were detained and haven’t been seen since.  Children in the intended readership age group are old enough to know about this, and fiction is a very good way of getting the message through.

We learn that Aya was injured by shrapnel and has a permanent scar as a result, and also that her mum is struggling physically and mentally after leaving Syria too soon after the difficult birth of her son.  The combination of that and the fact that she (the mum) doesn’t speak English puts a huge amount of responsibility on Aya’s shoulders.  What can bring joy and hope back into her life?

And that’s where we get this fascinating mix of genres – the title of the book is an obvious act of homage to Noel Streatfeild, and this is a very 21st century story combined with a traditional Girls’ Own story.  In the community centre where they go for advice, ballet classes are being held in another room – and we learn that Aya had ballet lessons back in Aleppo and was very keen.  There’s a moving scene later on in which some of the girls in the class are surprised to learn that there were ballet classes in Syria, a country they only associate with war, and Aya is sad that they don’t initially realise that life there was once perfectly normal.

In true GO style, Aya goes to watch the lessons, is invited to join in, and is so brilliant that Miss Helena, the teacher, offers her the chance to attend classes without paying – but, evidently understanding that she doesn’t want to be seen as a charity case, invites her to pay her way by helping out in the classes for younger children.  We later find out that Miss Helena, who was originally from Prague, came here on the Kindertransport, alone, and became a world famous ballerina.

Having Miss Helena in that role of what I’ve called the “fairy godmother ballet teacher”, a classic ballet book trope, is inspired.  She later tells Aya all about her own experiences – and this again is something that’s so important for children in the intended readership age group to know – and the point is made so well that war and persecution and refugee crises happen in every generation, over and over again.

Aya makes friends with a girl called Dotty, the daughter of another world famous ballerina – who wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps. There’s a sub-plot about how Dotty doesn’t really want to be a ballerina.  That’s very Lorna Hill – think Mariella Foster and Vicki Scott.  And the girls in the class arrange a concert to raise funds for the refugees – that’s very Girls’ Own too.

In some ways it is a classic children’s ballet book, and yet at the same time it’s a million miles away from Ballet Shoes or A Dream of Sadler’s Wells.  It’s all woven together very cleverly.  Aya and Dotty get locked in at the ballet studio after staying late to practise, standard enough storyline … but then Aya has a panic attack, and we learn about how she and her family travelled from Syria to Turkey in a container on a lorry, and nearly suffocated.  And about the conditions in the refugee camp.  It doesn’t spell out the dangers there, especially for women and girls, but there are mentions of it being unsafe to go out at night, of screaming, and of Aya feeling uncomfortable at the way some of the men look at her.

It is a children’s book, despite some of the hard-hitting subjects it covers, and adult readers will need to suspend disbelief over some aspects of it.  If Miss Helena started attending ballet classes before the Second World War, she must be the oldest ballet teacher in the world!  And would Dotty’s posh family, who live in a mansion – in an area near woodland, so does that suggest Alderley Edge? – be sending their daughter to ballet classes in a community centre in an underprivileged area miles away?  But try to ignore all that – it’s necessary for the story!

Dotty’s family have got their own swimming pool.  Dotty invites Aya to swim in it with her … and that brings about another flashback, this time to the flimsy boats making the crossing from Turkey to Greece, and that’s when we find out that the boat Aya’s family were in overturned, as so many did, and her dad drowned.  There are all these juxtapositions – from a ballet studio to a refugee camp, from a swimming pool in a mansion to people drowning whilst being taken across the Aegean in boats that aren’t fit for purpose, by unscrupulous traffickers who care nothing for human lives.

And Dotty, and another girl in their ballet class, are auditioning for the Royal Northern Ballet School.  Sadly, this doesn’t actually exist 🙂 .  But think Sadler’s Wells/Royal Ballet School, but based near Manchester.  If Aya can get a scholarship there, she’ll be entitled to stay in the UK because she’ll get a study visa.  She’s missed the preliminary auditions, but Miss Helena manages to swing it so that she can be seen anyway.

Just as an aside, it doesn’t specify which part of town any of the action’s taking place in, but there are some definite clues on the journey to the ballet school.  They seem to be heading across town on the Mancunian Way, and then out on to Chester Road, past the two Old Traffords 🙂 .  So they must be based on the north side of town, to need to cross town to get to the south side … which suggests the Cheetham Hill/Crumpsall area.  Then they keep going, so that’ll be straight down the A56 in its various incarnations south of the city centre, and it sounds as if the ballet school building is based on either Dunham Massey or Tatton Park.  I just had to try to work that out!

As Aya rehearses for the audition, she remembers dancing in the refugee camp, and thinks about how dancing is universal.  I’ve also seen videos of little kids in refugee camps playing football, just like little kids do in Manchester and Madrid and Munich.  Football, dancing, singing …  they don’t care who you are or where you are.

Of course, the audition is on the same day as the final asylum hearing.  Aya’s overcome with anxiety, and also with feelings of guilt at the thought that, if she succeeds, she’ll be granted a student visa but her mum and brother may still be deported.  And – this is very Girls’ Own, in a very un-Girls’-Own scenario – she faints in the middle of it all.  She doesn’t feel that she can go on, until Miss Helena explains that she lost her parents and sister in the Holocaust and turned round all the survivor guilt into believing that she had to make the most of the chance that she’d been given and that dancing was her way of making something beautiful out of the saving of her own life and the loss of theirs.  The pairing of the two characters who’ve both been through so much, in the traditional ballet book roles of the poor but brilliant student and the fix-it teacher, is a very clever touch, and very well executed.

I won’t give away the ending.  But I will mention the afterword, in which the author talks about “lightbulb books” for children, and how that’s the sort of book she’s tried to write.  She’s certainly ambitious: she talks about aspiring to write something that’s like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Silver Sword and also like Ballet Shoes, The Swish of the Curtain and the Sadler’s Wells books.  Time will tell how this book’s received, but I do hope that a lot of people will read it, and get a lot out of it.  It uses the term “the kindness of strangers” over and over again.  That’s something that we should all aspire to.

A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad – BBC 2

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Syria’s fallen out of the headlines of late, but, with over 350,000 people killed in the civil war, millions displaced, widespread destruction and no sign as yet of an end to it, it really shouldn’t have done. This programme began by informing us that Hafez-al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father and predecessor as president of Syria, used to make male soldiers kill puppies in front of him, and female soldiers bite the heads off snakes.  His own brother tried to overthrow him, whilst he was ill. And his eldest son, Bassel, had someone thrown in prison for beating him in a horse race.  What a lovely family.  This is the dynasty which rules Syria, and has done so for nearly half a century.

It’d be interesting to see some statistics on how many supposed republics are ruled by political dynasties. The al-Assads have been running Syria since Hafez took power in a coup in 1970.  He spent $1 billion building himself a palace – and that’s not including the cost of his separate summer palace.  We saw a lot of pictures of the palace, and of the family, but we didn’t really hear that much about what was actually going on.  No explanation of the historical background, and the complex ethno-religious situation within Syria.  No-one even mentioned the crucial fact of the al-Assads being Alawites, which is pretty fundamental.  And not all that much was said about the conflict between the hardliners and the liberals.  The focus was all on the personalities of the al-Assads and the tensions within the family.

It was quite interesting, though. With Rifaat al-Assad, Hafez’s brother, looking like his chosen heir until the attempted coup in 1984, and then Bassel al-Assad set to succeed his father, until he was killed in a car accident in 1994, Bashar was free to do as he liked.  He qualified as an eye surgeon, and worked in London.  Various people who knew him then spoke about what a jolly nice chap he was, and how he liked listening to Phil Collins.  And that was where he met his future wife, Asma Akras.

Asma al-Assad is intriguing. She was born, to Syrian parents, and brought up in London, speaks like an upper-middle-class woman from South East England – which I suppose is exactly what she is -, has a first class degree from King’s London, worked in investment banking, and had a place on an MBA course in Harvard which she turned down to marry Bashar.  Brilliantly intelligent woman.  Very attractive as well.  And she’s a Sunni, rather than an Alawite.  It was suggested that her matchmaking mum pushed her and Bashar together, but I can’t imagine either of them choosing a marriage partner they didn’t genuinely want.  When Hafez al-Assad died, she, then engaged to Bashar, travelled round Syria incognita, speaking to people about their concerns.  Reportedly doesn’t get on with her mother-in-law.  Nor her sister-in-law.  I’d love to know what she really makes of the way things have turned out.   Does she genuinely have liberal leanings, which she’s forced to repress?  Or is she just as conniving and power-mad as the rest of the family seem to be?  I think it’s telling that she doesn’t say much these days: she probably doesn’t dare.  She’s currently being treated for early stage breast cancer.

It was only when we got to the death of Hafez that the programme stopped seeming like an edition of Hello! magazine and actually started talking about Syria.  Even then, there was no explanation of the issues with the Alawites, the Sunnis, the Druze, the Ismailis, and the various Christian groups.  But we did hear about the cautious reforms during 2000 and early 2001.  And the big question the programme seemed to be asking was what might have happened had it not been for “9/11”, which happened only fourteen months after Bashar became president.

Large numbers of Muslim Brotherhood political prisoners were released. There are different ways of looking at this.  Was it a political amnesty aimed at trying to bring about some sort of reconciliation between the different factions in Syria?  Well, not according to this.  The argument here was that the 2003 Western invasion of Iraq panicked Bashar al-Assad into fearing that Syria might be next, and that he “unleashed” the prisoners so that they’d head off to Iraq and bog Britain and America down.

I’m not getting this argument. Why would anyone have thought the West was about to invade Syria?  The al-Assads and the West were pretty pally in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  We saw pictures of Bashar and Tony Blair driving around Syria together, and the al-Assads meeting the Queen for tea at Buckingham Palace.  And didn’t we get ourselves into enough of a mess in Iraq without wanting to invade anywhere else as well.  Am I missing something here? OK, I can see that it may have been a good excuse for him to stop any movement towards reform, but the idea of a “next stop Damascus” panic doesn’t really make much sense.  Well, it doesn’t to me, anyway!

And there endeth the first episode. So – no historical background, no explanations about the different ethnic and religious groups in Syria, and some very strange interpretations of the events of the early 2000s.  It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with next.  But we now know that Bashar al-Assad likes listening to Phil Collins.  Just in case anyone didn’t get this message clearly enough, In The Air Tonight was played.  Yep.  Thank you, BBC.   The war in Syria is incredibly complicated.  This programme did very little to explain it.