The Beekeeper of Aleppo: Fictionalising the refugee crisis from personal experience
Christy Lefteri drew inspiration for her new novel from volunteering in Greece
Christy Lefteri: ‘What stops people from talking about their traumas?’
In the summer of 2016, writer Christy Lefteri travelled to Athens where she spent two months volunteering at a centre for women and children displaced by war. Each day she served tea and biscuits to more than 100 people. At the end of the afternoon, she watched as fathers and sons, who had waited all day for their loved ones, arrived to pick up their wives and mothers, and return to their makeshift homes dotted around the Greek capital.
“I had no chance to talk to people at the start, I was exhausted,” she says. “But I kept getting a picture of Nuri and Afra [the characters in her novel] in my mind. I didn’t know their names, but I could see this blind woman stuck in the house where her son had died and a man bringing her a gift. I realised maybe there was a story there.”
Lefteri began exploring the streets of Athens where she met men, women and children who had arrived in Europe seeking safety.
“I remember one woman, she had a piece of charcoal and would draw these beautiful but dark pictures of people and places she’d lost. There was a man who couldn’t speak anymore who sat on Victoria Square. He had a photograph of his mother and brother, they’d died during the war. He’d hold this photo and after a long time he was able to say, ‘I miss you’ to the photograph. He wasn’t able to communicate that before.”
I remember one person telling me that their child had been constantly asking ‘are we going to die in the war?’
After two months in Greece, Lefteri returned to her home in London with a plan for the year ahead. She began sketching out the story of a Syrian couple caught up in the nation’s conflict, while learning Arabic in preparation for a return trip to Athens the following summer. During these weekly language classes, her tutor, a Syrian refugee named Ibrahim, would describe in detail his hometown of Aleppo.
“I knew Nuri and Afra had to go through Syria to get to Turkey, but I couldn’t go to Syria, it would have been suicide. So we created this alternative. I was seeing Ibrahim every week and it was a gentle process which built the foundations in my mind. We’d sit there with a map and go through places. It’s not a big part of the story, but it’s an important part, so I had to get it as right as I possibly could.”
Lefteri also drew on her knowledge of her parents’ native Cyprus, which lies a couple of hundred kilometres to the west of Syria. “The climate in Syria and Cyrus isn’t that different; the plants, the flowers and the smells. I used that as a basis.”
As the daughter of refugees, Lefteri’s personal understanding of the trauma created by war fed into the novel she was writing. Her father, a former army officer, did not speak to his children of his experiences in the 1974 Cyprus war. Her mother, who also fled the country, never spoke of the war either.
“It was all about starting a new life, finding work, settling and integrating. The trauma of war, all that displacement, kind of went underground somewhere. It was like a rumbling we could feel growing up. As a child you pick up on this, but you don’t know what you’re feeling. I was trying to understand where these reactions came from. What stops people from talking about their traumas?”
In 2017, Lefteri returned to Athens and found that the Hope Centre, where she had previously volunteered, had changed from a drop-in centre into an activity centre. “They wanted people to learn skills, otherwise they’d get trapped in just being helped. We were teaching them English and German and Greek so we were still helping, but in a different way.”
A former psychotherapist, Lefteri spent as much time as possible with Syrian women trying to understand the pain and suffering they had endured. “I think the second year was when it really started to shape the story because I was teaching women, I was holding their babies and you get that real connection. I started to see what strength and hope meant to them.
“I’d watch the children play and realise how their play changed as they became settled and felt more safe. Death was no longer imminent, and there wasn’t a fear anymore. I remember one person telling me that their child had been constantly asking ‘are we going to die in the war?’ That stayed with me.”
Stories of families
Spending long hours with these women helped Lefteri develop the character of Afra, her story’s lead female character who was blinded following a bombing in Aleppo. This grieving mother, who stands stoically by her husband Nuri as he descends into despair as they travel through Turkey and Greece, was reflective of so many stories of families passing through Athens.
“When I was writing her I thought, she’s very much stuck in her own mind and living through the trauma, that’s why she doesn’t talk a lot. In fact, she grieves better than Nuri. I think she sees more than him from the beginning.”
Nuri’s character took greater shape back in the UK. Having decided that Afra’s husband would be a beekeeper, Lefteri discovered an article written by Dr Ryad Alsous, the academic who had set up Damascus University’s first beekeeping programme, and was now living in Huddersfield. She contacted him through Facebook and he invited her to travel to west Yorkshire and meet his family who had fled Syria in 2013. There, he introduced her to the world of beekeeping.
“I met the bees even without protective gear. It was scary but I trusted him, there was something so knowledgeable about him. He said stand there, put your hands over your eyes and be very still. I can still remember the sound and the smell and the honeycomb. It was like being in a dangerous but beautiful bubble.”
Like Dr Alsous, Nuri carries a deep appreciation for beekeeping throughout Lefteri’s novel, which tracks the couple’s journey from Syria to the UK. The heart of the story, however, is not the odyssey across the Middle East and Europe, but the couple’s relationship, says Lefteri.
“It’s not really about whether they can get to the UK; the story’s about whether they can reach each other or not. There’s the external journey, but this is the real story – the relationship between this husband and wife that is so broken.”
In a time when those seeking asylum are often dehumanised and sometimes vilified for their attempts to reach Europe, Lefteri hopes The Beekeeper of Aleppo will offer a more empathetic insight into the refugee experience.
“We’re living in difficult times, and there is a lot of division and fear-mongering, especially in the UK. I remember before I went to Athens to volunteer, it was all over the news. Now it’s nowhere. Where is all that gone? It still exists, those people have still been displaced, they’re still trying to settle, they’re still traumatised. Where is everything now?”
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri is published by Zaffre