It’s hard to say when it happened but somewhere along the way, people have lost their ability to empathise.
Rather than putting themselves in someone else’s shoes and trying to understand what drove or drives them to act in a certain way, people too often condemn and decry, letting fear impel their actions rather than compassion.
In The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Christy Lefteri challenges this deficit of empathetic humanity with the haunting story of Nuri and Afra Ibrahim, a husband and wife from the near-desert city of Aleppo in Syria who are forced to flee the country’s destructive civil war when government troops essentially demand Nuri joins their side or forfeits his tenuous hold on life.
Reeling from the loss of their young son Sami to a bomb attack, and living off scrounged remnants of bread and fruit, the couple in the end have no choice but to flee their once beautiful home, where Nuri, along with his cousin Mustafa (along with wife Dahab, daughter Aya and son Ifras) once raised bees in the flower-studded fields on the edge of the desert.
Moving between the couple’s current temporary home in a B&B in the south of England, and their journey from Syria through Turkey and Greece, Lefteri movingly describes what it is like to not just lose your home but your innate sense of self, that once almost unassailable certainty of who you are and what you want to be.
“I wander over to the computer desk and sit down. I think of the field in Aleppo before the fire, when the bees hovered above the land like clouds, humming their song. I can see Mustafa taking a comb out of a hive, inspecting it closely, dipping a finger into the honey, tasting it. That was our paradise, at the edge of the desert and the edge of the city.” (P. 110)
With Nuri as our guide to the litany of horrors, physical, emotional and psychological that accompany a journey of this existential magnitude, we can’t help but come to appreciate, at least in some small part what the loss of much so quickly does to a person.
We see this soul-crushing loss not simply through Nuri and Afra, who have lost their son, their home and thriving careers (and heartbreakingly for Afra, her eyesight which was key to her burgeoning success as an artist depicting Aleppo’s once-beautiful landscapes, natural and man-made) but through Mustafa and Dahab, Anneliki in a sordid camp in a square in the heart of Athens, through Gabonese man Diomande, and a host of others, all of whom have had to yield their secure sense of humanity to the violent vagaries of world too weary or indifferent to care for them.
So deftly and profoundly intimately does Lefteri tell these stories of broken people clinging to their last vestiges of hope, and holding desperately to the scraps of empathy given to them by dedicated but overwhelmed NGO workers, that it’s all but impossible to turn the last page of this book and not be deeply, irrevocably changed.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo is not some hands-off, emotionally arm’s length recounting of the great many things a person in imminent mortal danger must do to escape to a place of freedom and safety.
If it were, you could read it as some sort of thrilling tale of a flight to safety, innocent people fleeing hellish, broken worlds unimaginable as they are forced to deal with people smugglers, pedophilic pimps, bureaucratic inertia and compassion exhaustion, as well as random, thoughtful acts of kindness, community borne of shared deprivation and understanding and hope that springs so eternal, despite the massive odds, that it pushes them across unfriendly borders, roiling seas and through worlds once utterly alien.
While those elements are all present and accounted for, Lefteri has invested them with such aching, accessible humanity that you can’t help but put yourself in the place of Nuri and Afra, and countless others they encounter, wondering how anyone could survive such things, an important first step in rescuing our fast-shrinking sense of empathy, where you wonder how we would navigate such a savage and brutal upending of the only life we have ever known.
She accomplishes this feat of empathy replenishment with writing that is both confrontingly powerful and intimately, sensitively truthful, eschewing grand dramatic twists and turns in favour of the simple truth of lives ruined and possibly, should enough people remember our shared humanity and act accordingly, lives redeemed.
“I look at her eyes, so full of far and questions and longing, and I had thought it was her who was lost, that Afra was the one stuck in the dark places of her mind. But I can see how present she is, how much she is trying to reach me. I stay there until I know she is asleep and then I head downstairs.” (P. 310)
It’s a harrowing, searing story but it’s also beautiful, expressively, haltingly, transcendantly so, as Nuri and Afra have to face not simply a journey across land and sea, but back to each other, as they try to find the depths and truth of a love that sustained them in peace and which, with traumas innumerable assailing it almost daily at times, has found itself broken and wanting in war.
There is drama of a sort in The Beekeeper of Aleppo, but at its quietly-spoken, nuanced and nakedly human heart, the novel, which poetically ends and begins many chapters with the same evocative word, is really the story of the people caught up in dramatic events, people who would, as would we all, much prefer to have their old lives intact, alive and as emotionally and physically verdant as always.
But that is all pipe dreams and fanciful notions as the cruel actions of other people force them to leave behind the certainties of home in a soul-scarring, emotionally-traumatic (we see this time and again in Afra, and particularly, Nuri’s reactions to all manner of events, all of them filtered through profound, dislocating PTSD) search for somewhere approximating what they once had.
Would we want to embark on such a perilously-fraught journey? Let’s be brutally honest – none of us would, and it is to Lefteri’s credit and her gift for quietly evocative writing drenched in humanity and insight, that we come to understand that none of the many refugees coursing through the world want it either.
Of course, they don’t, but when events overwhelm, it’s all too easy to lose sight of that; thank goodness then we have books like The Beekeeper of Aleppo and articulate people like Christy Lefteri to remind us that we are all the same and that when people like Nuri and Afra lose everything, we all do, and we are all, all of us, the poorer for it, and that we must, without hesitation, always choose compassion and empathy over unthinking fear and condemnation.