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Seeing by Mike Strong

Artwork by Holly Fischer, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR. The book is “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” by Christy Lefteri.

In “The Beekeeper of Aleppo,” Christy Lefteri ponders what it means “to see.” One of her two main characters, Afra, the wife of Nuri, is blind, following the death of her son. He was killed by a bomb in the Syrian civil war (which still goes on). She does not see visually the journey they go through to escape death in Aleppo to reach the UK.

But we are shown, at least in the book. Lefteri wants us to see within her book what we do not see in everyday life or in the news. What we do not sense closely.

There is a fun experiment almost all of us can do easily to “see” our blind spot in operation. Cover one of your eyes with one hand. With the other hand, put one finger up and, while carefully looking at a single point ahead (do NOT look at the finger), move your finger from the center outward until part of the finger disappears.

Our optic nerves are placed in front of the retina, not behind. In order for visual signals to get to the brain they have to pass through a hole, so to speak, in the retina. That is a small spot with no imaging surface, just a pass through for the optic nerve.

Normally we never notice the blind spots, one in each eye. Instead, our brain “Photoshops” the spot for us. Actually, the brain does a lot of adjustments. The only truly sharp area in our eyes is the fovea centralis. The rest of the retina is not so sharp, so our eyes are constantly scanning the area around us to build a full landscape in which we are immersed.

You could properly say that the world we perceive is processed, selected, and edited in real time by our brains.

Very few of us are presented with the dangers and choices Nuri and Afra must make in leaving their home. Even when covered by journalists, there is a separation, a distant-voyeur quality which removes us from the life and death struggles of refugees.

In the “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, Christy Lefteri tells us, “I am not a journalist. I am a novelist.” Being a novelist allows her to create the story of Nuri and Afra Ibrahim. Lefteri is able to combine numerous stories she knows through her own work as a UNICEF volunteer in a refugee center in Athens, Greece (2016-2017), and through research and interviews.

Refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria passed through Athens, among so many other locations. Some overland, many across the sea. All were hazardous journeys, taken because staying in place at home was even more hazardous.

Nuri realizes that he must leave Syria when he is confronted by paramilitary soldiers at a checkpoint. One of the soldiers pushes a gun up against Nuri’s chest, telling Nuri to take the gun. They are intent on drafting him into their paramilitary group.

Nuri stalls them for a couple of days by telling them his wife is sick. But he is warned, “The next time we see you either you take a gun and stand beside us, or you find someone to take your body.”

Later that night, they show up at his house. He and Afra have a hiding spot in a hole in the garden. The men hunt for him. “I told you, “a man said. “I told you not to let him go.”

Lefteri tells us directly that she doesn’t think she could tell the story as journalism For Christy Lefteri this has to be a novel where she can create the characters as stand ins for a larger variety of real stories she has heard from refugees in Athens.

She is also able to create a sense of the mental states of her refugees by giving us a text which whips us back and forth in time, from before the war until reaching the UK. You have to pay attention to figure out where Nuri and Afra are in their journey. Even have to figure out what events and people they see are real and what are created by their minds.

This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club

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