The Beekeepers

Try as we might to hope that the two apian titles speak only of positive lessons from bees — of how theirs is a society where each one functions for the good of the entire colony, of how they continue to work even when everything around them is dying — I am afraid they don’t.

Two beekeepers of neighboring nations; one real, the other fictional. Both written by women; one an Iraqi journalist and poet, the other a novelist who volunteered in refugee centers, herself a daughter of Cypriot refugees.

The Beekeeper of Sinjar is Abdullah Shrem. When DAESH (ISIS) began terrorizing Yazidi communities and abducting their women including Abdullah’s sister, he took advantage of his knowledge of the terrain and select personal contacts to rescue and smuggle women back to safety. Each time he saved a captive woman, he felt that he was also saving his sister.

Among the stolen women was Nadia Murad, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, the first Iraqi and Yazidi to be awarded the prize.

Dunya Mikhail initially inserts poems into a journalistic approach and recounts distressing interviews with the rescued women who were sold, beaten, and raped repeatedly, but who nonetheless opened up to the author so that she could write about their suffering. “It’s important that your book see the light of day, so that the world will know what’s going on here.” The journalistic eventually veers into the poetic, and I feel that this is one of the books from the region that will endure not only as an overwhelming account but also as a literary work.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is the fictional Nuri Ibrahim, but through him and the plight he shares with his blind wife, Christy Lefteri expresses the unspeakable realities and consequences of war, of lives ended, uprooted, wasted, abused, and destroyed.

“War,” writes Dunya Mikhail, “comes with various names but with only one face.”

Even though it seems that love and hope is universal, unfortunately, so is war.

“The problem isn’t that the world is going to end, but that it continues without any change.” — Nadia Murad

Gertrude Bell

“The world was awake — it wakes early in the East.”

Gertrude Bell’s simple description of a Persian sunrise encapsulates, with figurative overtones, the theme of the books I have been reading lately. In The Silk Roads, she is described as dynamic and fiercely intelligent, brilliant, a mercurial scholar and traveler who knew the region and its people as well as anyone. Portrayed by Nicole Kidman in Queen of the Desert, she is called a Kingmaker for being influential in drawing up the borders of the new nation of Iraq and in bringing King Faisal to power as its first ruler in 1921. But it was only through Safar Nameh that I was introduced to her writing.

She writes so elegantly with a deep perception of places, people, and the relationship between East and West. She speaks of “the careless optimism of those who seek to pile one edifice upon another, a Western upon an Eastern world, and never pause to consider whether, if it stands at all, the newer will only stand by crushing the older out of all existence.”

This is a tiny book of a hundred pages that I thought I would be able to finish in one coffee break, but the writing is too beautiful that I had to savor the lines over and over again.

And for those times when my mind and soul are exceedingly wide awake in wonder, she has the right words… “The world was too lovely for sleep.”

Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad and Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love

October 19, 2021

“Things We Fear” — As soon as I learned about the Ex Libris (book club) theme for this month, I immediately took Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad from my shelf. Not a fan of the horror genre, it is one of the few I own that seems closely related to the theme.

I have this book because it is written by an Iraqi and therefore part of my current reading project.

Set in post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad, the novel is a winner of the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and a finalist of the Man Booker International Prize in 2018. However, it took me a while to process how I felt about it.

A couple of passages eventually led me to conclude that this walking corpse, stitched up from different body parts of victims of violence, is the author’s grim portrait of what it means to be an Iraqi today: “Because I’m made up of body parts of people from diverse backgrounds — ethnicities, tribes, races, and social classes — I represent the impossible mix that never was achieved in the past. I’m the first true Iraqi citizen, he thinks.”

“The definitive image of him was whatever lurked in people’s heads, fed by fear and despair. It was an image that had as many forms as there were people to conjure it.”

I think the novel is powerful in its own way, and it did give me goosebumps on the last page — but it did not really scare me.

So… If we did not have the power outage today that made me miss the book session, I would have presented The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak instead. 

Because, come on! Love is already scary enough! How much more if you add Forty Rules to it? Haha!

Finished only on the third attempt as a humorous attempt to present something “scary” in a bookclub session, I feel conflicted because it features a lot of what I am currently interested in — a time and place where the Crusades and Mongol conquests intersected, a time of Assassins and Mamluks, and basically the time when Rumi lived! I enjoyed the historical details but not so much the parts where the prose got syrupy and saccharine. It has its own beauty, but I think another reader might fare better.