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'The Pianist of Yarmouk': A Syrian refugee in Germany uses music to bridge two worlds

Daniel Roland, AFP | Originally from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, the pianist Aeham Ahmad now lives in Wiesbaden, in Germany.

Videos of him playing the piano amid the rubble of the Yarmouk neighborhood in Damascus made the musician Aeham Ahmad a symbol of hope. He now lives in a refugee centre in Germany and has published an autobiography that is an ode to music and hope.


Back straight, gaze focused, Aeham Ahmad’s fingers press the keys of his piano. Behind him are the ruins of Yarmouk, Damascus, destroyed by the bombing of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The photo, which was taken in 2015, was seen around the world, a symbol of humanity in the conflict that has ravaged Syria for more than seven years.

Now Ahmad has published a biography called "The Pianist of Yarmouk," in which he pushes back against the simplifications and misleading images that have become part of the war.  

His own life has been anything but simple. Born in 1988 to Palestinian parents - his mother is a teacher and his father a musician Ahmad grew up in Yarmouk, a camp established in 1954 by the Syrian government for Palestinian refugees expelled from Israel, which has become a lively part of the Syrian capital.

Niraz Saied |Aeham Ahmad at his piano in Yarmouk, in 2014.

"Nobody knows Mozart here"

Ahmad’s introduction to music came from his father, a blind cellist. When he describes his childhood memories of hearing the music his father played mixing with the scent of jasmine and the cooing of pigeons, he writes that he felt safe and happy.

When he was six, Ahmad was admitted to the Arab Institute, a music school in Damascus. He learned the classics - Czerny, Beethoven, Mozart. But he didn’t feel he fit in at the elite institution. Sometimes, he felt like dropping everything, that learning music was pointless. “No one knows Mozart here,” he told his father. His father presciently replied that, as refugees who could not go back to their own county, they had to be international.   

Perspective: Aeham Ahmad, the 'Pianist of Yarmouk'

After ten years of training, Ahmad became a piano teacher and, with his father, opened a lute factory, which rapidly flourished. He met Tahani, “the love of his life” when he was 23. They married a short time later, right as the war was breaking out. By the time their son was born the following year, they were already surrounded by rubble.

"My revolution is music"

The war engulfed everything. After suffering a shrapnel wound to his hand, Ahmad decided to use music as a form of resistance. For weeks he wheeled his piano on a trolley out into the middle of the ruins, helped by his friends and his students, who sometimes joined in with song. There, among the ruins, he and his out-of-tune piano sang of his despair. His street concerts were filmed and posted on YouTube, and Ahmad became increasingly famous around the world as a reminder the lives continuing to be lived in war-torn Damascus.

In June 2015, an Islamic State-group jihadist burned his piano, changing everything for him. He tried to continue his personal protest by playing the accordion in the streets, but eventually the fighting, the hunger and the fear became too much for him to bear. In early September, he decided to seek asylum in Germany.

His journey resembled that of millions of migrants: the separation from his family, the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean on a rubber boat, the trying Balkan route, and finally, the arrival in Germany about two months later.

Music as their passport

In Germany, some 3000 kilometres from his home, Ahmad’s reputation preceded him: his videos and media coverage had made him famous. Before long, Ahmad was back on stage. Festivals fought for him, and he drew crowds. He was a stranger in a country where he didn’t speak the language, caught in the administrative labyrinth of seeking asylum and anxious to bring his family over, but Ahmad didn’t let any of that hold him back. He knew that music brings people together, and believed his songs could serve as a bridge between cultures.

In 2016, Ahmad was granted asylum and managed to bring his wife and two children to Germany. Today they live in Wiesbaden, far from a lost land, but with music as their passport, their link between two worlds.

This article is an adaptation from the original in French.


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