The Pianist of Yarmouk by Aehem Ahmad: “There’s always hope”

This is the revealing and moving memoir of a young musician who captured media attention in the west during the earlier part of the civil war in Syria, by dragging a beaten-up piano into the rubble of Yarmouk, the besieged suburb on the outskirts of Damascus, originally a large camp for refugees from Palestine in the 1940s. With help from foreigners, but at considerable personal risk, he succeeded in making the dangerous journey to Germany in 2015, where he was eventually reunited with his immediate family, and now continues to perform music about Syria to inform and remind us of the ongoing crisis there.

Ghosted by a couple of writers, the book is not particularly well-written and some details are unclear and at times hard to credit, but that is outweighed by the vivid first-hand account of life in Syria plus his resilience and flashes of humour even in adversity.

His father’s blindness and frequent need of him as a guide created a stronger bond than is usual between Syrian fathers and sons. A regular violinist at weddings, the father had greater ambitions for Aeham to become a classical pianist, going to extraordinary lengths to help him, against the odds, to gain a place at the prestigious music school dominated by children of the wealthy, going on to cajole, even bribe him, to continue practising through his rebellious teenage years. This gave him the skill which would one day save him from the hell of the civil war.

Initially impoverished, the family manages to achieve a brief level of prosperity through manufacturing and selling musical instruments, until the war forces the boarding up of the shop which is eventually blown to smithereens. Ironically, it seems to be the reluctance to abandon their instruments which keeps them in Yarmouk until they are caught up in the deadly siege.

I particularly liked the continual insights into life in Syria before it was disrupted by the war: the continual violent arguments between Aeham’s normally rational mother and her sister-in-law in the house they shared as an extended family. Despite skiving off high school to play popular music and compose in the shop (why wasn’t it open?), and insisting on marrying when his parents consider he is too young, Aeham still follows the custom of asking them to find him a suitable wife, and keeps to the tradition of not seeing their choice Tahini prior to their engagement – until curiosity brings her to their music shop to check him out, after which they arrange clandestine meetings.

From the outset there is pressure not to step out of line: Aeham is good at creating a sense of fear, as when he can tell from his father’s body language that the man whose piano they are tuning is dangerous – he turns out to be the ruthless and corrupt secretary of defence and close confidant of Assad’s father.

The tone darkens dramatically with the onset of war: the risk of arrest or a beating at one of the arbitrary checkpoints set up by rival military groups; the sniper fire which punctuates Aeham’s music as he accompanies a band of children singing; the piano, defiantly painted the colours of the Palestinian flag, set alight by a bigoted ISIS soldier because “ owning musical instruments is an unforgivable sin”. All this has to be endured on a diet of red lentil falafel and clover.

Although the dramatic account of Aeham’s eventual escape, involving exploitation by people smugglers and chains of middle men both sides of the political divide, has become an all too familiar theme, there is an authentic ring to his frequently breaking down in tears en route, or believing that he was about to meet his end, because of the surreal, inhuman stress of it all, together with his subsequent sense of guilt over having escaped and mourning for a past life, despite being in the safety of Germany.

This book is important reading for those unaware of the tragedy of Syria and Palestine. It is also worth viewing on YouTube some of the videos of Aeham playing.

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