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Reasons for Asylum

Syrian refugees having rest at the floor of Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 5 September 2015.
Mstyslav Chernov, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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The author asks, “What does it mean to see?”

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

In a non-linear narrative such as this book, you might want to start with the author’s note. It’s at the end. She tells us that she felt compelled to write a book on refugees as she volunteered in 2016 and 2017 at a UNICEF refugee center in Athens, Greece.

You might say that Christy Lefteri’s novel is about “witnessing.” She is a voice for the desperate and generally traumatized who find their only choice is to leave their homes, their lives, livelihoods and often enough their dead behind.

She doesn’t just ask what we see, or what she sees or what the refugees see. Lefteri asks, “What does it mean to see?” Sometimes, when things are too unspeakable, you don’t see.

After her first Athens trip, back in London, Lefteri engaged a tutor, a Syrian refugee translator who vetted her manuscript for accuracy and urged her to finish the book. Lefteri gives us a performance in text which pulls us into the fears, confusions, and the blind hope in leaving home for uncertain fate.

In one section of “The Beekeeper” Nuri finds that his cousin, Mustafa, has fled, leaving a note for him. Mustafa tells of the darkness inside of him. Recalls his small son, Firas, dead. Relates a story of watching four soldiers who capture a group of boys, blindfold them, shoot them and throw their bodies into the river. He imagines Firas among the group. This would have been what happened to Firas.

Mustafa had found a gun with three bullets. He waits “until their guard was down, till they sat on the bank of the river smoking cigarettes and put their feet in the water.” He killed three and ran. They saw his face, so Mustafa knows he needs to go.

A little later in the chapter Nuri comes back to Afra. She wants to know what he has seen. Nuri tells her that he overheard two armed men talking, taking bets on something for target practice. As they finalized their betting Nuri realized they were talking about an eight-year-old boy playing alone. They killed the boy. As he lay dying they kept firing to keep the mother from reaching her child.

That passage brought to mind another book, one from 1988, using the written diaries and letters of those who perpetrated and/or witnessed, who saw, Nazi horrors in WWII. It has the sardonic title of: “The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by its Perpetrators and Bystanders.” Editors are Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, Volker Riess with a forward by Hugh Trevor-Roper.

One witness in Kovno, Lithuania wrote (text in parentheses & Italics mine):

“… there was a group of men aged between thirty and fifty. There must have been forty to fifty of them. They were herded together and kept under guard by some civilians. … A young Lithuanian man with rolled up sleeves was armed with an iron crowbar. He dragged out one man at a time from the crowd and struck with the crowbar one or more blows to the back of the head. Within three-quarters of an hour he had beaten to death the entire group of forty-five to fifty people (each time getting applause, cheers, laughter) … After the entire group had been beaten to death, the young man put the crowbar to one side, fetched an accordion and went and stood on the mountain of corpses and played the Lithuanian national anthem.”

History gives dates and leaders. Journalism asks for leaders’ statements and gives accounts. Novels bring us to the people, where the real costs of war are tallied.

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

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