When war broke out in Syria, Aeham Ahmad wheeled his piano out onto the streets of Yarmouk and began to play. He played for freedom – to fight against the loneliness brought by conflict.
When I first read Aeham Ahmad’s book, The Pianist of Yarmouk, I was struck by the raw honesty of his story. The novel relays the author’s memories of growing up in Yarmouk, near the Syrian capital of Damascus, and the horrors brought by the war.
As my phone rings through to Aeham, I’m feeling nervous. It’s been a while since a novel impacted me the way The Pianist of Yarmouk has, and I feel incredibly grateful that Aeham has agreed to an interview.
As our conversation commences, I ask about the book and the writing process. Aeham’s initial response is intriguing and clearly demonstrates the connection between his writing, his music, and his memories.
‘I came to Germany in 2015 and I played at a lot of concerts,’ he begins. ‘In between the songs, I would talk about them – why the text was in Arabic and what I was saying. I created stories about the war.
‘In 2017, I met someone from an agency, working with a publisher in Germany. He told me it was possible to write down my stories in Arabic, and in other languages, and we could publish a book. In Syria, when you publish a book, you usually have to pay a lot of money. When I didn’t have to pay for this book, I was happy to write it.
‘I did not write down everything until October 2017 and then we had the book. It was important for me because this was the first time I had written down the memory. I wrote a lot about the family, and my father, and our situation.’
‘This was the first time I had written down the memory.’
Aeham’s memories of persistent piano lessons are prominent in his novel. During our interview he explains how, after resisting these lessons for years, he came to appreciate his musical abilities.
‘When I was sixteen, I began to understand what special tools I had with the piano and how I could reach a lot of people. I never liked to practise – until now. I now like to enjoy concerts, to practise for these situations.
‘Before, when I was practising Bach and Mozart, it was important to learn the harmonies and rules, but it was not fun. That’s why I hated the piano and fought my father every day. But when I understood that I could teach and make an income from the music, that I could use Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff to create my own rules, I enjoyed it too much.’
Aeham’s written accounts of school days and piano lessons are soon overshadowed by war. The lives of the Yarmouk residents were uprooted by conflict and it was then that Aeham began wheeling his piano out onto the streets to play.
‘It was part of the demonstration, where people needed to sing for something,’ Aeham explains. ‘It was also about not feeling lonely, because I had a lot of people in the streets and they were singing with me. We were creating such a beautiful atmosphere.’
‘They were singing with me.’
Amidst the gathering piles of rubble, Aeham’s music brought hope to those enduring unimaginable hardships. He tells me about the first day he played in the street, and what it was like to share music in this environment.
‘It began with an accordion,’ he states. ‘Tahini, my wife, brought it to me and said, ‘play, play’. I never played in the street, but this was the situation, a really extra situation with hunger and thirst and people complaining. Suddenly I was playing, and this is how it began. I felt opposing emotions, nice, but suffering and fighting, fighting for music.’
Aeham continued to play in the streets, fighting for freedom and hope. His faith in music only wavered when a little girl, Zaineb, lost her life to a misplaced bullet while singing beside him.
‘It was from this moment I decided to finish the music, for now, and also for the future. I was already at three percent of energy to fight again and this is why I ran, because I felt that I’d hurt enough people with my music. I hurt myself and my family and I hurt Zaineb and her family. I’m still carrying that now.
‘I was already at three percent of energy to fight again.’
The day his piano was taken and destroyed also drove his decision to escape. It was during an attempt to smuggle the piano across a checkpoint that the instrument was seized and set alight.
‘I think it was shortly before Zaineb,’ he explains. ‘Next time, they would catch me and would kill us all. That’s why I thought I should be brave. That’s why I began the search to escape that horrible place. And I found it.’
For Aeham and many others, fleeing Yarmouk was a necessity and not a choice. To stay was a great risk, one Aeham wasn’t willing to expose his children to.
‘It’s not easy to understand what happened in Yarmouk and how it was destroyed. It was not really a decision to leave. We’d been trying to get out since 2013, when the situation became even worse. We began with no water, no electricity, no food – people dying from hunger.
‘It was not really a decision to leave.’
‘How we were living in 2014-15 is different from Yarmouk now. The government destroyed Yarmouk completely. I am happy with my decision because of what has happened for my children.’
Revisiting painful memories is never easy, but this process provides healing for many. For Aeham however, the memories worked into his novel bear too much suffering.
‘One of the most important things for me is memory, because I think that people slowly forget what happened in Syria and they mix-up all the facts. They don’t care about private stories in the news, they just speak about thousands or tens of thousands of people.
‘The book takes me to a place where I don’t like to be, but it also creates more emotion for concerts and more understanding for the people – and for me. I don’t like to hear the book and I don’t need to remember those memories, because if I stand every day in this memory of Yarmouk, I will never go on in life.
‘It’s disturbed my future, but in this time, it’s so important to read the book and to have this memory and share it with everyone because it’s part of the community story and not my own only. I feel responsible for doing that.’
‘It’s disturbed my future.’
While playing the piano gave Aeham a sense of hope during the war, music now brings him both pleasure and pain. He explains how his purpose and his style have changed since leaving Syria.
‘Music doesn’t heal me how it healed me in Syria. I play because it’s my work now. I earn my money for the family from those concerts – I don’t get money from the German state. This is why I play, but I also like sharing music with people to give me this healing aspect.
‘The music takes me to bad situations sometimes, but it can also build a bridge between the cultures and this is what I try to do. I don’t play music like I played in Syria. I play folk songs from Germany, mixed with Swiss and Palestinian songs, in the Jazz way.
‘To create music, I have an image in my mind, a photo, or a story. In Syria, the text came first and after that, I created the sound. Now it’s more about the composition, to be good at the piano. I use my voice to create an atmosphere around the piece of music.’
‘Music doesn’t heal me.’
Most novels convey an overarching message, whether intentionally incorporated or not. Aeham tells me that the message of his story is about understanding and accepting, rather than passing judgment.
‘The guy who writes the book is me, Aeham Ahmed,’ he comments. ‘One guy, a human, so don’t call him a refugee. He has a name and he has his own life, before and after. Those people come because they don’t have any solution to stay in their country. They are not your idiot.
‘People here don’t need to be against us, because we are part of the problem, we are not the problem. This is the main message that I would like to transfer. People don’t need to say it’s you, you are the problem. Everybody here can be a victim.’
With many thanks to Aeham Ahmad