Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape. But what Afra has seen is so terrible she has gone blind, and so they must embark on a perilous journey through Turkey and Greece towards an uncertain future in Britain. On the way, Nuri is sustained by the knowledge that waiting for them is Mustafa, his cousin and business partner, who has started an apiary and is teaching fellow refugees in Yorkshire to keep bees.
As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.
How to begin this review? It’s hard to put into words how much this book touched me and broke my heart in equal measure. The Beekeeper of Aleppo follows the story of Nuri and Afra Ibrahim, a Syrian couple who flee Aleppo to reunite with members of their family who have reached the UK safely. While we learn early on that they do reach the UK, where they’re seeking asylum, their journey is fraught with dangers and tribulations prior to this. We read as they make their way from the devastating ruins of their home in Aleppo, to Turkey and then to Greece, all the while reconciling who they used to be and those who they have lost with their current day realities.
While there are many harrowing or difficult scenes in the novel, this book is also an incredible testament to the human spirit. Reading the ways in which Nuri and Afra find strength in each other like a touchstone throughout their journey was beautiful. While this is a story about the effects of war and displacement, it’s also a simple and compelling story about the relationship between a man and his wife. While Afra is outwardly wounded, as she has lost her sight following the loss of their young son, Sami. Nuri is psychologically altered by all he has experienced and had to witness, he finds it hard to feel much at all. Their story is told with empathy and compassion, it never felt false or overly sentimental to me.
I also really loved the motif of the Bees throughout the novel. The passages where Nuri details how simple and pleasurable his every day routine working with his bees in Syria would be was so captivating. A reader is able to imagine a sun dappled field with hives and Nuri working lovingly with these little creatures he understands more than people in some ways. It is all the more touching when he finds an injured bee in the garden at the B&B in the UK and how he nurses it back to health. It’s a small yet deeply important moment for him and this book is full of these quiet moments where the characters are able to think and feel amidst the backdrop of their fraught situation. The bees provide a sense of hope for him too, as they remind Nuri of his cousin Mustafa, who is more like a brother to him, who he hopes to reunite with in the UK.
In terms of the story and writing itself, I can’t fault it. There are some truly exquisite quotes and passages. I also liked the structure of the novel , given that it jumps back and forth in time and indicates how moments in their past has changed them both as individuals and as a couple in the present. I also liked the emails between Nuri and Mustafa and how it shows two different stories of survival.
As one can imagine, this is not a light or easy read by any means but it is a haunting and deeply important story. While the characters are fictional, there are real people who are making these treacherous journeys every single day, people who must leave their homes and all familiarity behind in order to feel safe and protect their children, wives, husbands and friends. The author, Christy Lefteri was inspired to write this book following her time working as a volunteer in a refugee center in Greece and this personal connection really shows up in the beautiful story she has written. This story and many others I have read over the last few years has made me want to volunteer when I am able to all the more. I also appreciated that there is a short list of organisations included at the end of the novel, which help refugees and asylum seekers. In case a reader is unaware of how to help, the list provides some good places on where to start.
Overall, this was a touching and emotional book, which definitely took a lot out of me as I tend to get extremely invested in the books I read, especially when it comes to a topic like the ones covered in The Beekeeper of Aleppo, which are close to my heart. I would encourage anyone who has an interest in stories of human resilience and hope to pick this book up, while it’s difficult, it’s also important and relevant.
Until next time,