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.

“L’Insoumise de Gaza” by Asmaa Alghoul & Sélim Nassib: “When there’s no choice but to rebel”

L'Insoumise de Gaza (Documents, Actualités, Société) (French Edition) by [Nassib, Sélim, Alghoul, Asmaa]

The eldest of nine, Asmaa Alghoul grew up in the Gaza refugee camp of Rafah where her grandparents had fled after their land was taken by the Israelis. I found it hard to “place” her family; although, as a refugee, she received handouts at school, her father was clearly educated, at times holding down a professional post abroad and teaching at a Gaza university, while her uncles were much more fundamentally religious, supporters of Hamas, some holding quite senior posts. Encouraged to ask questions by her relatively broad-minded father but chastised by the uncles for her lack of piety, by her mother for not doing her homework and her teacher for misbehaving at school, a combination of these factors must have engendered her unusually stubborn, resilient and persistent stance, a prerequisite for a female journalist in the tough, chauvinist environment of the Gaza strip.
Having left an Islamic university because it was too strict, and a less academic, more secular one when her course folded through lack of students, Asmaa quickly found work writing for a newspaper about the plight of Gaza and Palestinian women’s rights, going on to win a succession of international prizes for the courage and quality of her work.

She demonstrates in quite an extreme form the dilemma of the woman who wants to combine marriage and motherhood with a career which involves great commitment flexibility, even danger in the sense of risking arrest and torture for attending a demonstration, or death when trying to cover an Israeli attack. She tends to let her “heart rule her head” in choosing husbands, only to find them to be not as open-minded as she thought. Perhaps she is a little blinkered when it comes to admitting her own fault in the failure of a relationship. She certainly seems to have suffered post-natal depression after the birth of her son, both her children being largely brought up by her own mother, it seems.

She gives a vivid impression of life in the Gaza strip, surprising me at first with her “plague on all your houses” attitude to the various opposing groups who confine the inhabitants in a vice. As a child she refused a sweet from a well-meaning Israeli soldier, “because it contained poison”. Some of her earliest memories were of Israeli soldiers attacking with stones and teargas the house of her extended family, beating her uncles for their connections with Hamas. Years later she was to tell a Jewish American lecturer at Columbia that he was the first Israeli to teach her something.

Yet she also condemns the corruption of Fatah and the Palestinian Organisation, claiming that they pocketed large sums sent by naïve European and American groups to help the Palestinians. One of their number, she claims, even supplied the concrete to build the infamous wall protecting Israel.

Dispelling my belief that Hamas was at least democratically elected to represent Gaza, she describes how they manipulated the system to get enough votes to win. She also describes their repressive fanaticism, driven by control freakery rather than based on any doctrine, in which a woman is continually harassed and manhandled for failing to cover her hair completely with a headscarf, arrested for sitting on the beach fully clad, but with her clothing moulded to her body after bathing in the sea, or tortured for attending a demonstration.

As is no doubt vital for one’s sanity and endurance, there is much humour in the book, as when she manages to flout the taboo on cycling, using the company of some European wars waged by the Israelis in the early C21, culminating in the broken ceasefire of 2014 in which several members of her family were killed, mostly innocent civilians. She writes vividly of her fear of being killed, the sudden and arbitrary nature of death: of her newborn twin nephews, one died and the other survives, but to be haunted by this fact for the rest of his life. Then there is the strange depression which comes in the aftermath of bombardment when all tension is abruptly removed and one can relax. Although she appreciates that all wars must end in peace between enemies, so sees the futility of retaliation, she describes the urge to do so “because our blood is not as cheap as you think”.

No one escapes her fearless, pithy, no-holds-barred analysis, so it is obvious why she has attracted such fierce attacks in return. “What a region!” she writes, in which Islamic State kills people indiscriminately in the name of a perverted interpretation of Islam, whereas Israel does so in the name of its Promised Land. She ends this book on a positive, defiant note but the prospect seems bleak in reality.

Some prior knowledge is needed to appreciate this book fully, although I suppose it could equally well inspire a reader to go away and gen themselves up on an injustice which is allowed to persist through widespread indifference compounded by ignorance.