I have realized over the last few years that the fairly new Aspen Words Prize, focused exclusively on fiction with a social impact, is one of my favorite literary prizes. I am by no means an expert in literary prizes, but what I can say is that their long and short lists are wonderfully diverse (even more so when compared to other literary prizes) and I have yet to read a book they have considered that I haven’t either really liked or loved. My reviews of the last few year’s winners Exit West by Mohsin Hamid and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, are on my blog. And here’s my review for the most recent (2020) winner!
“Sometimes we create such powerful illusions, so that we do not get lost in the darkness.”
The Beekeeper of Aleppo tells the story of Syrian refugee Nuri, who was a beekeeper in Aleppo before the war, and his wife, Afra, an artist. The violence and tragedy of Syria eventually cause Nuri and Afra to escape their homeland, on a perilous journey to try and reach Nuri’s cousin and business partner, Mustafa, who has made it to England with his own family and has started an apiary and is teaching beekeeping to fellow refugees. Nuri’s voice narrates the story, jumping in time from his and Afra’s current location (a temporary home in the UK while they wait for their asylum interviews) to the loss and dangers they survived during their trip across the world, searching for safety.
This is a moving and powerful story, and all the more so because of the calm and beautiful writing with which it is told. I read that Lefteri is a child of refugees and has spent time working in Greece with refugees there on multiple occasions, which is what prompted her to write this story. And you can feel her strength of emotion behind the compassionate words of this novel, as well as in the small details that she includes throughout. In particular, the images of the key in Nuri’s dreams, the marble that Afra constantly rolls in her fingers and the wingless bee that Nuri cares for so carefully in England have lodged themselves in my mind and I imagine that they’ll be there for a while. Although Lefteri writes clearly and without question about the many traumas and violences and tragedies that Nuri and Afra face, it never crosses a line into gratuitous imagery. I appreciated that while reading and feel that it is even more forceful now that I have finished and those small details are the ones stuck in my had, while the feelings of sorrow and loss and longing and…sort of a searching feeling…are the emotions that I am sitting with as I finish.
There are a few things I want to point out, in particular, about this novel and the writing. First, the juxtaposition with the way violence (snipers, bombs, dead bodies, destruction) becomes a normalized part of life, a constancy that makes it an almost desensitized backdrop, with the mental/emotional strain and PTSD that those who have lived it, is striking. It’s important, as a reader, to not let the overwhelming heart-breaking-ness of this story override that it is reality for many…and though they have experienced so much horror, and have created coping mechanisms to keep it “under the surface” (because what other options are there?), the effects of that trauma are deep and wide and irreversible. In addition, and very related, Lefteri presents the way trauma affects the mind and perception, and how we adjust and react in order to cope, in a very affecting way. Looking at Afra’s physical-psychosomatic responses and Nuri’s “dreams” and flashbacks, as well as some of the responses from other refugees and asylum-seekers they meet along their journey, the reader is exposed to a number of these ways the body/mind can cope. And all are tragic in their own way. Lefteri also does a wonderful job creating a sense of mournful nostalgia for a homeland, highlighting the longing for a place that one knows is no longer what it used to be, and yet still holds that memory/place in the heart. Specifically regarding Nuri and Afra’s relationship, it is an insightful, though difficult, look at how we treat and interact with those closest to us when we suffer – the ways we might turn from them in order to avoid confronting the pain of shared experiences and the helplessness at not being able to spare or protect them. It’s not at all an uncommon coping mechanism, and overcoming that distance, to learn to process and, perhaps, start to heal together is a major focus of the novel and Nuri and Afra’s journey. Finally, there was some, if small, exploration of the asylum process itself, the hoops and length of process involved in escaping from such unsafe locations/circumstances, how easy this displaced population is to take advantage of, the complete lack of protections for them, and the way that refugees must constantly relive the most painful parts of their past in order the “prove” that they deserve to stay in a place where they are “safe.” This is such a disheartening setup for a system that is supposed to be there to help those who need it find asylum.
As I said at the beginning, this is an incredibly moving novel. It’s an emotional and difficult read, but handles the topic with what felt, at least for me, like great respect and nuance. As with many novels about populations that are overlooked or in need, or systems that are flawed, I find myself with an urge to do something after finishing. At the end of the audiobook, Lefteri provides information about a few organizations in England that are working in this area. I plan to find some local to me and figure out what types of donations or assistance I can provide. And I urge others to read this novel and then do the same.
A few passages I transcribed (so, all errors are mine) while listening:
“I wish I could escape my mind, that I could be free of this world and everything I have seen in the last few years. And the children who have survived – what will become of them? How will they be able to live in this world?”
“But in Syria there is a saying: inside the person you know, there is a person you do not know.”
“They communicated without words from the most primitive part of the soul. I remembered her laughing about this, saying that she felt like an animal, and how she realized that we are less human in our times of greatest love and greatest fear.”
“When you belong to someone and they are gone, who are you?”
“There is always one person in a group who has more courage than the rest. It takes bravery to cry out, to release what is in your heart.”