It is an unseasonably cool August day, and outside the rain is tapping on the leaves of the tall cypress tree which my cats have been trying to figure out since the day we moved into our new apartment. Like the majority of Istanbulities, I am welcoming this much-needed break from humid weather that has blanketed the city since July. For the first time this summer, I am able to have my morning coffee on the balcony and read without having to wear sunscreen and squinting my eyes.
I have just finished Christy Lefteri’s novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo (2019) and felt the urge to grab my laptop to think and write about it. I know I haven’t posted in this space in a while, but from Raven Leilani’s Luster (2020) and Saba Tahir’s All My Rage (2022) to Aysegul Savas’s Walking on the Ceiling (2019) and Mina Seckin’s The Four Humors (2021), I have read quite interesting novels that have rendered my summer a lot more exciting than it actually is. The thing is that reflections I post on this page are not necessarily book reviews. As an academic and a literary critic, I write journal articles and book reviews that are critical in nature, and that’s part of my job. At the risk of sounding corny, Reading under the Olive Tree, however, is reserved for anything that moves and inspires me, any book that speaks to my soul, if you will. As an individual whose profession is to read and write about books, sometimes ones that I do not enjoy at all, I still can’t pinpoint what it is exactly that ignites the overwhelming desire to leave my seat to grab my notebook. That, I know, is beyond the realm of academia. The story, or the language–in most cases both– strike a chord in parts of your soul that you didn’t know existed. You know, the feeling you get when you know that you cannot do anything else; you cannot move on with your life unless you let the world know how hauntingly beautiful a novel is.
Well, if you know, you know. If not, I do hope that you get to experience this ethereal feeling sometime.
I am here writing on RUOT again, after a while, because I couldn’t put Lefteri’s The Beekeeper of Aleppo down. I simply did not want the narrative to come to an end–
which was bizarre, since the novel is a tragic war story that will break your heart into a million pieces. And lately I haven’t been doing well with such stories.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo follows a young Syrian couple, Nuri and Afra, who flees Syria after having lost not only their son but life as they knew it before the civil war in 2015. Nuri, the narrator, metaphorically looks the reader in the eye and shares the agonizing details of their migration to England. The chapters alternate among the past where Nuri happily ran a bee farm with his cousin Mustafa, leading a fulfilling, art-filled life in Aleppo, the present marked by mixed feelings of anxiety and relief as Afra and Nuri apply for asylum in Britain, and their harrowing journey in between across Turkey and Greece.
It’s been challenging for me to read war and migration narratives since I left the Midwest and moved back to Turkey. Geographical proximity, cross-border contact, and observing the plight of illegal migrants on my morning run, or on my way to a fancy dinner has put me in a hazy mental and an emotional state, where I have a tough time accepting the drastic differences between my reality and theirs. Nuri and Afra’s reality too is heart-wrenching and is not easy to read. But Lefteri’s writerly voice throughout the novel is a benevolent force that makes you want to keep reading.
Lefteri tackles one of the most tender topics in literary fiction. And she approaches the sensitive storyline through the viewpoint of a male migrant who suffers from PTSD as a result of war and everything that it has cost him.
Having read more one hundred and fifty migration narratives in one year showed me how difficult it has been and can be for writers to find balance as they attempt to move beyond what is conveyed in the headlines. The process of creating a character’s harrowing journey across borders requires a level of complexity and simplicity with a dash of lightness, a recipe that can help us undo desensitization from which the majority of the globe suffer in the 21st century. If, as a reader, all I’m getting in a migration novel are accounts and instances of rape, hunger, death, loss, and how characters are repeatedly dehumanized, that particular narrative is limited in its efforts to go beyond what’s being reported in the news. Of course, as a reader, this could pique your interest, but for me this is when I quietly put the book down, go for a walk by the sea to recover, and move on to the next novel.
You could very well argue that this amplifies my privilege–many refugees, after all, again and again go through traumatic events that shape their reality that they don’t have the luxury to escape. And you’re right. But I also think: we have the newspaper headlines, news reports, statistics, and academic studies that help shed light on the pure facts. As a reader, my interest lies in the intricacies of the character’s life and journey as harrowing as it may be. And The Beekeeper of Aleppo exemplifies how this effect can be achieved by utilizing a language so simple yet profound which fascinatingly renders a gut-wrenching storyline hauntingly beautiful.
Throughout their journey, Nuri and Afra suffer indescribably and are degraded repeatedly at the hands of militants, smugglers, gangs, and immigration officers. Nuri’s account bares the struggles of displaced persons as they flee their home to survive–Nuri doesn’t hold back, and he shouldn’t. So, he tells us about the dead bodies he encounters in his previously peaceful neighborhood in Aleppo, how his son is killed and he and his wife are the next in line, the violence and humans rights violations on the refugee camps enclosed in barbed wires, the smuggler who rapes his wife, and more. There is a moment, in England, when Nuri glances at his wife, an artist who has become blind after seeing her son die, and writes:
There is an expression on her face I recognise from years ago, and it makes my sadness feel like something palpable, like a pulse, but it makes me afraid too, afraid of fate and chance, and hurt and harm, of the randomness of pain, how life can take everything from you all at once.pg. 133
The reality is indeed grim.
From the start, Lefteri establishes the context by hinting at environmental degradation as one of drivers of forced migration. This is subtle in the novel but is worth mentioning. “As the years passed,” Nuri writes in the first chapter, “the desert was slowly growing, the climate becoming harsh, rivers drying up, farmers struggling; only the bees were draught resistant” (12). The bees, “these little warriors” as his wife Afra calls them, and their resilience inspire Nuri to persevere at the most challenging times. But the perpetual state of being stuck in a liminal no man’s land is etched on to their new identities as refugees. Even after arriving in England, the temporal uncertainties loom over their future. They may be sent back; back where? They don’t have the slightest idea.
“To stay in the UK as a refugee you must be unable to live safely in any part of your own country because you fear persecution there,” Nuri is reminded of the laws. “But will you send us back to Turkey or Greece?” he asks to the volunteer Lucy Fisher, “What does persecution mean to you?” (27).
Immigration laws, labels, and terminologies dominate the discussions on refugees and migration–while it is pertinent for us all to be familiar with the discourse, we also need to be conscious of who has the power to define (e.g. the terms such as “persecution” that play a vital role in the officials’ decisions on who deserves to be granted protection and asylum and who deserves to be thrown out). As Nuri writes elsewhere:
People were restless as they waited to be identified. They wanted their papers so that they could exist in the eyes of the European Union. And the ones who were the wrong nationality would get no papers–except for a ticket back to wherever.pg. 156
In the literature, many migration novels offer this vivid portrayal of the unimaginable horrors encountered by displaced persons. What distinguishes Lefteri’s novel from other tragic displacement stories is the delicate way in which she captures the beauty that can still be found in the pit of hell.
Recognizing beauty and love in ugliness emerges as a powerful act of resistance throughout Nuri’s narrative. As he depicts the inhumane conditions on various refugee camps, for instance, he takes the time to notice the solidarity between the locals and the refugees, an older Greek lady and a refugee mother bonding through body language, a hopeful email from his cousin Mustafa who made it to England, and a lot more that remind him “where there are bees there are flowers, and where there are flowers there is new life and home” (233).
In Farmakonisi, described as one of the most dark, dangerous camps in the novel, Nuri doesn’t fail to make note of the sun glowing through the leaves of trees, “a canopy of emerald,” recognizing the sound of rebab, of music that he “needed like water” (228). The deep love Nuri and Afra has for each other is palpable, and I’m truly fascinated by how a string of the simplest words can animate a sentiment, make it jump out of the book. It is not surprising then that in Greece, Nuri feels that “things can change, that hope can prevail, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Maybe we could get out of here soon” (253). And it is that flicker of hope that inspires Nuri to take action to continue the journey– to England.
Both Nuri and Afra are well aware that there is no home for them to go back to, but Afra’s enthralling paintings, which she continues to create despite her blindness during their journey, their memories of Aleppo, Damascus, and their son, as well as the taste of “the apricot sweets,” “the smell of night jasmine,” and “the buzzing of the bees” etched in their hearts will allow them to take home with them, they seem to know.
Yes, The Beekeeper of Aleppo encourages the reader to review our privileges, as a well-crafted migration novel should. Yes, it humanizes the ongoing “refugee crisis.” But I don’t think this is merely a book written to “educate” or to open reader’s eyes to the realities of the refugee crisis. (One of the many reasons why it’s won my heart) This is a novel about forced migration, loss, war, and leaving your home behind, yes, but it is also about fearing fate while trusting it–when you have no choice but to trust it. It is about poetry, finding the beauty in the ugly, as a way to resist destruction and death.
And Lefteri approaches her characters’ vulnerability in such a gentle, graceful way that the novel feels heart-warming and hopeful despite the horrifying reality millions of people worldwide face today.
If you are wondering how reading a novel about such traumatic events can feel like the gentle tapping of the rain on the window, you will have to add The Beekeeper of Aleppo onto your reading list. If you’ve read The Beekeeper of Aleppo already, I’d love it if you let me know what you think.