I am stuck! I have three postings on the go and none of them are finished or ‘working’ so, instead, I thought I would share three books, with similar themes but very different messages, from among those I have recently read. This is not to say Mary Beard’s The Twelve Caesars and Charlotte Higgins’ Greek Myths, A New Retelling are not worthy, thought provoking, brilliant and different, they are all those. They have, however, been well publicised and rightly so but the three featured are a little more ‘off grid’, in fact one does not initially appear to have an immediate classical relevance.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo
This is the story of Nuri, a beekeeper, his wife Afra, an artist, and their son Sami who live in Aleppo. Civil war erupts and they have to flee across several countries to try and get to the UK where they have relatives. The journey is fraught with as many dangers as the situation they left as they journey through countries and refugee centres where they encounter equally damaged, desperate people and traffickers. First published in 2019, although it is a fictional family, it is written by Christy Lefteri who worked in a refugee centre in Athens in 2016 and 2017. It is based upon the terrible experiences of refugees who wanted the world to know their stories: men, women and children. I cannot say this is an enjoyable book as such and, in places, it is a very hard read although there are moments of laughter and hope and the events of this week make it tragically topical. With the recent tragic events it is a book to read to gain perspective.
However, I did not buy it for a topical read. It was featured in a Twitter comment, along with a book I have yet to read, The Vanishing Half, which stated “Just like a homing pigeon, having read these, I am winging my way back to the Iliad”. Simply on the strength of that I bought it as I wanted to compare and note similarities of experience to The Queens of Syria which is an adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women. Whilst the Queens of Syria is a play of personal stories told by women in a camp in Jordan and The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a trans-country migration I found many narrative commonalities: trauma, loss, identity, memory, control, which could give a lens to understand the experience of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, something which there is little or no primary source material. Certainly, I feel it is a vehicle to at least open a conversation. This will be covered in a later blog post.
Having read the book, I was slightly puzzled by the Twitter poster’s comment about re-visiting the Iliad. For me the parallels to the Odyssey, being a journey including dangerous voyages, were much closer. In fact, the Odyssey is overtly referenced with the Sirens story in a passage set in the refugee camp in Athens. It is a story of a musician from Afghanistan who plays the Rebab, a two-string lute instrument played with a bow, whose music and singing are mesmerising, even his speaking voice is captivating. Nuri notices a relationship develop between two boys, which becomes more unsettling as time progresses. They go into the woods surrounding the camp every evening until one night they don’t come back. So, I was intrigued enough about re-visiting the Iliad enough to message the commenter. The reply was, apart from instinctively going back to the Iliad they felt it is to do with identity being at the core of both. Achilles is not inhumane in the end and the Beekeeper finds a way to move forward. This, to me, highlights the strength of Classics – there are so many angles and ways of interpreting reception sources.
The Mighty Dead
I was recommended this as a read during a recent course on Homer, the course presenter was my tutor for the final three years as a Classical Studies undergraduate so knew me well and suggested it would be thought provoking – certainly ticked the boxes there. I must confess that I found the first couple of chapters hard going and a little strange, but it is so worth persevering with. It is beautifully written by Adam Nicholson who studied Greek when young. The book has a strange similarity to The Beekeeper of Aleppo as the author uses his own personal life hardships and the experience of sailing up the west coast of Ireland in less than friendly seas to confront and engage Homer, heroes and the bronze age. Together with a literal recognition of the spirit of Odysseus coursing through his veins as a mariner battling seas at night, the author has a recognition that there is a metaphorical meaning as it is a journey through life “as the Odyssey knows, to live well in the world … you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present, remain mobile, keep adjusting the rig, work with the swells, watch for a wind-shift, watch as the boom swings over, engage, in other words, with the muddle and duplicity and difficulty of life.”
Nicholson has a theory, which I found particularly persuasive, that the poems are not just the product of the 8th century BCE but can be traced back to an oral transition from a much earlier time, perhaps 2000 BCE, and mark the transition from the “hero based culture of the Steppes” and the “sophisticated, authoritarian and literate cities and palaces of the eastern Mediterranean”. The evidence is well researched with excellent evidence. Although he traces the poem through time it is more than just chronology, the Homeric space is imaginatively occupied with comparisons.
I found the book engaging and full of questions and ideas. I have enjoyed considering whether The Iliad and Odyssey are indeed a turning point, almost a manual with the Iliad looking back at the heroic past when values such and xenia, aretē, tîmê, kleos and aristeia were of paramount importance and The Odyssey being the outward, trading and ultimately empire building Greeks showcasing different races and circumstances that would be encountered and how to deal with them. Although certain values must be maintained such as the penalties for abusing Xenia!
It is not just the big ideas that I found fascinating. For instance, there are a couple of short paragraphs on the liminality of the beach or seashore. I had not considered this as a space apart from the norm before but, thinking about it, it can be obvious. It is the start and end of journeys (each way) where the method of transport is literally out of its element. It is the space where interaction between humans and gods becomes opaque: Ajax calls on Neptune’s help while walking on the beach, as an envoy, to persuade Achilles to re-join the fight and, after being humiliated, it is where Chrysis goes to call on Apollo to bring a plague on the Greeks – not to a temple but to the beach. It is where Patroclus’ funeral pile is built perhaps to aid his journey to Hades as the barriers are less. I am sure there are more examples – but I have found it fun thinking about it.
Under Another Sky
I happened across this book by accident. Having recently bought and read Charlotte Higgins’ Greek Myths, A New Retelling, part of the ‘deal’ was access to a conversation with Mary Beard and Charlotte Higgins about the book. It was during this conversation that Mary Beard said how much she enjoyed Under Another Sky, so I thought, if is good enough for Mary it is good enough for me. Now, having read both her books I am ashamed to say that, although I was aware she is the chief culture writer for the Guardian, I did not realise how knowledgeable (although she did study Classics at Baliol) she is or indeed what a good writer.
The strapline to the title is Journeys in Roman Britain but it is so much more than a travelogue or guidebook. The author spent two summers with her boyfriend, Matthew, to all points east north, south and west in her less than trusty 1974 VW Camper, and sometimes on foot, visiting different sites, some well known some on a road far less travelled. The object of the exercise was not to catalogue Roman remains but to learn from encountering them. Instead, it was to “think about what this period means, and has meant, to the British sense of history and identity. I wanted to discover the ways in which the idea of Roman Britain has resonated in British Culture and still forms part of the texture of its landscape”. To do this she not only interacts personally and imaginatively with the visited sites but also with archaeological history, personalities through the centuries to modern times and how they shape individuals. It is not a book to skim read, that would be a disservice to the wonderful descriptive narrative which is so engaging. That is not to say the book cannot be a travel guide as included is a section on ‘places to visit’ covering the practicalities of visiting the sites in each chapter.
The book is well supported by notes for the more academic and there is an extensive bibliography. To anyone with an interest in Roman Britain I would suggest this is a worthwhile addition which I am sure I will revisit and certainly it would have been a worthwhile read before the Roman Empire module I undertook as an undergraduate.
I hope you gave enjoyed reading about these accounts, all with a travel and autoethnographical experience theme, although all very different on content, feel and message. Even without a specific interest in the subject matter I would nevertheless recommend them all simply for a different perspective on the world then and today.