An exclusive Authorlink interview by Diane Slocum

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Christy Lefteri

Ballantine Books

Nuri and Afra and their young son live on a lovely hill overlooking Aleppo. Nuri and his cousin, Mustafa, tend bees in the fragrant fields of flowers nearby. Then war comes. They try to hang on, but their lives are devastated by destruction and death. Mustafa fleas first and Nuri’s challenge becomes to join him in England. Nuri and Afra survive the horrors of flight and refugee camps. Yet, making it to England is not enough to heal their wounds.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about how safe I was there, and that not too far away there was such devastation…”

AUTHORLINK: What was your first thought that led to this story?

LEFTERI: In the spring of 2016 I went to visit my dad who lives on the far east side of Cyprus that faces Syria. One day, I was sitting on the sand on a very beautiful beach and looking out across the water. I couldn’t stop thinking about how safe I was there, and that not too far away there was such devastation and death. I kept imagining how frightened people must have been. Because my parents had lived through a war, it really brought it close to home. I felt absolutely compelled to go and help in some way, but because I couldn’t go to Syria, I decided to help in Greece which led me to volunteer at a women and children’s center. This eventually led to me writing the story.

AUTHORLINK: What insights into your characters did you get from being a child of refugees and working with UNICEF in Athens?

LEFTERI: My parents both moved to London as a result of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. My dad had been a commanding officer of that war, and they both became refugees. Although my parents hardly spoke about the war, I think they wanted to protect me from the pain they had experienced, I believe that I lived my childhood in the shadow of it.

Eventually, when I decided to volunteer in Athens, I found that people wanted to talk, to tell their stories, and I wanted to learn more about their experiences. I began to visit some of the camps, abandoned schools or the old airport, or Pedion tou Areos, a camp in a park in central Athens. I interviewed people, I found out where they had come from, where they wanted to go. Escaping war, or tyrannical regimes, or extreme poverty, was just the beginning. Back in the U.K, I decided to learn Arabic – people were learning English and Greek to try to communicate with us, so why not put the effort in myself? I was lucky because found a teacher who would also teach me about Syria before the war and tell me about his own experiences as a refugee and as a translator for asylum seekers in London.

I wanted to capture the experience of refugees, in the lead up to the referendum, and on the journey through Turkey and Greece, to bring to life the things I had learnt and absorbed, the experiences of loss and fear and also love.  The novel is about vulnerability, but it is also about hope. It is about the effects of PTSD on one man’s mind, but it is also about the love he has for nature, for the bees, for his friends and ultimately for his wife.

“I wanted to explore what can happen to how we treat each other…”

AUTHORLINK: What did you want to explore in the development of Nuri and Afra and their relationship?

LEFTERI: I wanted to explore what can happen to how we treat each other, how we are with the people we care about the most, when we have experienced so much war and trauma. Later on in the novel, Afra tells Nuri that he has forgotten to love her. And she is right. Nuri is so traumatized, so lost in his own world, he does not even remember how to love his wife anymore. The story is about how this husband and wife find each other again.

AUTHORLINK: Was it emotionally difficult to write the scenes of suffering when you had been with people in those circumstances?

LEFTERI: Yes, absolutely. I found it extremely difficult. But at the same time, when I was working at the Hope Centre, getting to know people, playing with the children, teaching them English, I started to really care about them. So when I got back to the U.K., I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I kept imagining these children still in the camps, still afraid, still without homes. So I was remembering these things, even when I wasn’t writing. I guess writing it really forced me to face these memories head-on, to not turn a blind eye, to not simply try to forget.

AUTHORLINK: How do you think it helps the refugees by telling their stories and the rest of us by hearing them?

“It [ news and crisis imagery] can actually distance us from the reality of what people are going through.”

LEFTERI: I think there is so much crisis imagery in the news, statistics and non-specific language. It can actually distance us from the reality of what people are going through. When we hear an individual’s story or the story of a family, we can connect with them, we can more easily put ourselves in their shoes and empathize.

AUTHORLINK: What else did you do for research – about bees for instance?

LEFTERI: When I returned to the U.K I met a man called Dr. Ryad Alsous, who had once been a beekeeper in Damascus. He had found a way to build beehives and to teach other refugees about beekeeping. I was inspired by his story and his strength, so I contacted him on Facebook and I arranged to travel to Huddersfield to meet his family and to also meet the bees. Ryad taught me so much about the bees, about how they communicate with each other, about the seasons and the hives, the queen bees. I learnt so much from him. Meeting Ryad really helped me to bring both Nuri and Mustafa to life, their love of nature and the important work they do.

AUTHORLINK: Why did you write the story with chapters taking place in England interspersed with chapters with Nuri and Afra attempting to get there?

LEFTERI: Because the chapters in the past are Nuri’s memory. We get dropped into his memories. I did it like this because after my mum died, I might have been talking to someone, I thought I was present, but they would say a word, or I would see something, and suddenly I was in another time, in another place imagining that I was talking to my mum or remembering something we had done together. This is what happens to Nuri. Except he has lost so many people, his home, his son, his work, his country.

About the author: Christy Lefteri was born and grew up in London.  She completed a degree in English and a Masters in Creative Writing from Brunel University where she is now a lecturer. The Beekeeper of Aleppo is her second novel, following her debut with A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible, a story of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.