Aspen Words kicks off its Community Read Wednesday, July 8. This year’s pick is “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” by Christy Lefteri; the 2019 novel won the literary organization’s annual Literary Prize this spring for a work of literature that illuminates a contemporary issue. The book discusses the Syrian civil war through the eyes of two refugees fleeing to Europe.
Although fiction, the roots for Lefteri’s novel can be traced back through her family tree. Lefteri was born in London after her parents fled their home country of Cyprus during the Turkish invasion of 1974. Cyprus sits some 200 miles from the Syrian coast, which was years into its own violent conflict when Lefteri visited her parents' homeland in 2016.
“I just remember sitting there, thinking, ‘God, I’m so safe here in Cyprus, and there’s this awful war going on,’” she said. “I think probably because of the experience my parents had, I felt really compelled to go and help the people.”
Lefteri went to work at a Syrian refugee center in Athens, where she passed out hot tea and biscuits to families that streamed into the camp. She kept hearing a familiar sentiment from her childhood—a longing for home.
“I remember this one guy saying to me, ‘You lose yourself, it’s not just your country and your family, you’ve lost that routine, you’ve lost waking up in the morning and walking to the bus stop, or you’ve lost the smell of a certain flower you had in your garden.’ I just remember stories like that, you know those little things.”
Those little things became threads she wove together in “The Beekeeper of Aleppo.” The book is narrated by Nuri, a former beekeeper fleeing Aleppo for England with his wife Afra, who is blind. Lefteri links the motif of seeing and being seen to her time at the refugee camp.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘Do I really want to see this? Do I wish I could close my eyes and close my ears and forget that these things really do happen in the world?’” she said. “That extended into ‘What do these people feel like if other people don’t want to see them?’”
Lefteri created Nuri and Afra’s world with the help of two Syrian refugees she met in England. One was a beekeeper and former professor at Damascus University, who now nurtures hives in northern England. The other was her Arabic tutor, Ibrahim, who helped with the manuscript. Lefteri said Ibrahim helped her fill in the blank spaces of what the characters Nuri and Afra would have seen and felt in Syria, and how they would have crossed into Europe.
“We would do 45 minutes of Arabic and 45 minutes going over my manuscript and talking about Syria,” she said. “Sometimes I’d say, ‘It’s too difficult because I can’t go to Syria, so how am I going to write that bit?’ He’d keep encouraging me to carry on, and sometimes he’d get really upset at what I was writing because he said I really brought it to life for him.”
Helen Obermeyer, a judge for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, said the novel came to life for her, too.
“It really takes you away from your own personal experience and puts you in the shoes of someone else,” she said. “If you take that aspect of fiction and add into it a community read where other friends of yours or the person walking across the street is reading the same thing, it enhances that experience.”
Obermeyer added that the judges found both Lefteri’s nuance highlighting the ongoing Syrian civil war and refugee crisis and her skill as a writer deserving of the prize.
“It is truly a work of literature,” said Obermeyer. “She [Lefteri] created a complex structure, and there are phrases in this book that just absolutely make you want to stop dead in your tracks and cry they’re so beautiful.”
Pitkin County Library and Aspen Words will host virtual book club discussions and an interview with Lefteri as part of its month-long Community Read. Librarian Charlie Blackmer said along with bringing together the valley through a group read, the novel offers inspiration for difficult times.
“I’m thinking about resiliency,” she said. “The story of the husband and wife in ‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’ and how they’re able to stay resilient during this challenging journey and time.”
Lefteri said readers frequently ask her what they can do about the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis; for her, part of the answer is remembering that the millions displaced by the conflict are simply people all with their own stories. She hopes that her characters are part of that discussion.
“I hope my readers really get to know Nuri and Afra and get to live with them for a while so they can understand them,” she said.
Local readers have the chance to connect with the characters—and each other—throughout the Community Read this summer.