The Beekeeper of Aleppo: A theatrical adaptation of Syrian strife
This month, Nottingham Playhouse is showcasing an adapted play of Christy Lefteri’s international bestseller book, The Beekeeper of Aleppo.
The play is directed by the Olivier Award-winning Miranda Cromwell and has been adapted by Nesrin Alrefaai, Visiting Fellow and Arabic Content Editor at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre, and Matthew Spangler, playwright and professor of performance studies at San José State University, who previously adapted the Kite Runner (authored by Khaled Hosseini) play first premiered in 2009.
"Once upon a time, it was the Afghans and Iraqis... Who knows what’s next?"
The play deals with the plight of refugees from Aleppo in Syria to Europe during the war in Syria, telling the story of beekeeper Nuri and his artist wife Afra.
The viewer embarks on Nuri’s and Afra’s journey from Syria to England. The journey, swamped with trauma, both old and new, touches on the perilous sea crossings, brutal condition of refugee camps, and cold and unsympathetic bureaucracy of the UK Home Office.
Alongside these struggles, however, the journey discovers the importance of love, kindness and compassion, showing that human nature has the capability to persevere even when specific situations are at their hardest.
Adapting the book has been an important incorporation into the play. By incorporating adapted as well as added scenes, the audience is not only able to see the characters of the book come to life, thereby granting their imagination a sense of reality, but also authentic voices and representation.
The latter is needed to portray an accurate depiction of the lives of Syrians who once had very normal lives before the war broke out. For example, at the beginning of the play, we see Nuri and Afra living their lives in Aleppo before the war.
They’re having dinner with Mustafa (Nuri’s cousin) and his wife on a Friday evening, devouring the famous Kubba Halab (stuffed rice dumplings) named after the city of Aleppo, and Fustok Halab (Pistachio named after the city of Aleppo).
Similar to Brits enjoying their Sunday dinner, we see scenes of ordinary Syrians enjoying their Friday dinner, which is known to be a sacred day in the Middle East. This representation has a purpose and it’s to show that Aleppo was never always a place of conflict, rubble, and suffering but that it was once safe, and a place where people had jobs and homes.
This representation is crucial, especially when making comparisons with the representation of Aleppo after the war breaks out. The representation of Aleppo on two different levels helps challenge the stereotypical image of refugees and shows the audience how much the Syrian people lost, and that not every refugee coming to the UK is here to “steal jobs”.
Instead, Syrians are here to seek safety. That is why when Nuri is asked “Why are you here?” by the play’s Immigration Officer, Nuri’s response is straightforward. He is simply here in the UK seeking asylum “because it’s safe.”
Besides the authentic voices and representation that Alrefaai brings as a cultural Consultant and co-playwright, the adaptation of the book also touches on a number of additional core themes. In an exclusive The New Arab interview with Alrefaai, we talk about the themes the play addresses.
Often seen as a taboo topic in the Middle East, Alrefaai and Spangler recognised the importance of speaking openly and comfortably about the impact that war, migration, and uncertainty can have on one’s mental health.
As is known, any stigmatization of mental health conditions can be extremely detrimental, and only worsens the problem at hand. Unfortunately, mental health issues in the Middle East are often seen as a source of shame, weakness, personal failure, and an excuse for laziness.
These views not only keep individuals quiet but are more likely to avoid talking about their suffering or seeking medical or psychological help.
The topic of PTSD is raised in the play. Within the context of war, PTSD and the symptoms that come with it are usually associated with veterans returning to their home countries.
In the play, however, Alrefaai and Spangler have taken into account the importance of normalising and encouraging discussions about PTSD witnessed by refugees.
Afra’s physiological symptoms (her temporary blindness stemming from the shock of bomb explosions), and Nuri’s psychological symptoms are two clear examples of mental health impacts presented in the play.
Politicization of refugees
In the world that we live in today, refugees are still politicized according to government policies. In the play, Fotakis, the Greek smuggler, says it’s a great advantage to be Syrian because of the priority Syrians were given at the time of the refugee crisis.
The smuggler further adds that “Once upon a time, it was the Afghans and Iraqis” who were prioritised. To end this dialogue, the smuggler says “Who knows what’s next?”
Here, “who’s next” could imply the priority of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since the timeline of the play finishes in 2016, it’s left as an open question instead to stress the ongoing trend of politicizing refugees.
The inequalities and prejudice of this trend can also be seen when a refugee woman of Somali background explains her struggles are not a priority because of her status as an economic migrant.
Even in times of crisis, war and great humanitarian need, the UK Home Office’s hostile environment policy continues to rear its ugly head.
The general perception of women in the Middle East is that they are vulnerable. Showing the representation of female characters, Alrefaai and Spangler use this play to show that women in the region are not as vulnerable as they are portrayed to be, especially in the media.
Using Afra as an example, her blindness is seen as her biggest vulnerability. Commenting on this, Alrefaai told The New Arab: “You might think that Afra’s blindness makes her vulnerable. In fact, it makes her strong.”
Alrefaai further added: “The duality of who is blind and who can see is something I wanted to play with”. At one point, the smuggler says “Oh, poor blind woman.” Automatically, the audience thinks is in fact a poor blind and vulnerable woman. These impressions are further extenuated when Nuri does most of the talking on behalf of Afra. However, the reality of Afra’s vulnerability is quite different, especially in act two of the play. It’s at this point when you begin to realise that she’s been strong all along.”
Although Afra is blind, Alrefaai concluded by saying: “She is the one who can see. All along, it was Afra who knew that Muhammad (a figment of Nuri’s imagination that he created as a coping mechanism for the loss of his deceased son Sami) was not real.
Her strength here is allowing Nuri to have his imaginary talks with Muhammad because it was at this very moment when she realised Nuri needed to fully process the grief of losing his son until it was the right time for Afra to confront Nuri back into reality.
The power and strength Afra carries are what make the audience realise: “Oh, the blind woman is actually the one who can see, and it’s Nuri who is blind to the fact that Muhammad is not real.”
This moment of the play is crucial when demonstrating resilience and strength. Furthermore, this moment in the play is a testament to women in the Middle East. What this play demonstrated is that women do so much, and give up so much, leaving little room and time to cultivate their talents and creativity. If they do, it is at a price. Ultimately, this play demonstrated the need for more female voices to be heard.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo will be showcased in Nottingham until Saturday 25 February, and will soon reach other cities across England. The full list of tour dates can be found here.
Zainab Mehdi is a Researcher and Freelance Journalist specialising in governance, development, and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Follow her on Twitter: @zaiamehdi