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.

 

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.