Aehem Ahmad: the Pianist of Yarmouk finds keys to friendship
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Syrian-Palestinian pianist Aeham Ahmad became known after videos of him playing piano on the bombed out streets of his neighbourhood of Yarmouk near Damascus were posted on Youtube in 2013. Now a refugee in Germany he's released an album Keys to Friendship with German jazz pianist Edgar Knecht. He talks to RFI about how music became his passport to freedom.
Born in 1988 to Palestinian parents, Aeham Ahmed grew up in Yarmouk, a camp set up by the Syrian government in 1954 for Palestinian refugees expelled from Israel.
His Palestinian father, a blind violinist and instrument maker, pushed him to study classical music.
When Ahmed questioned the point of studying Mozart and Rachmaninov, his father reminded him that classical music would provide him with the passport he didn’t have as a Palestinian living in Syria.
“He saved my life to give me the key to being international, to be there on the radio to present the music," Ahmed told RFI on a recent trip to Paris to promote his autobiography Le Pianiste de Yarmouk (The Pianist of Damascus in English).
"He give me the international passport to be pianist because [if] I’m an oud player or tabla player, darbouka player, maybe it will not be international. But piano everybody know Mozart and Beethoven [from] Jaban until Europe until America.”
“My father saw the future,” he adds. And he knew that the future was not in Yarmouk.
Passport to Germany
Ahmed went on to graduate from the conservatorium in Damascus and Homs. He might have been a great pianist but in 2013, when the siege of Yarmouk was at its height, he was hit in the right hand by a piece of shrapnel.
“I’m only 10% of a pianist,” he says showing his gnarled hand. “I used to play Rachmaninov concerto n°3 in university but I can’t do it anymore. After one or two pages I have a lot of pain.”
The injury, however, didn’t stop him from fulfilling his father’s dream.
Thanks to his mother and a German journalist, he paid to get out of Yarmouk in August 2015 and reached Germany 45 days later. It was a time of open borders. He was already known to international media as the Pianist of Yarmouk after videos of him playing piano in the streets had been posted on Youtube. He was immediately provided with shelter and concerts.
“After 15 days I play with Herbert Grönemeyer, Sportfreunde Stiller [one of Germany’s most famous indie bands], Judith Holofernes [German folk musician] - the biggest stars in Germany,” he says excitedly. “And I sing with Judith Holofernes a German song with a Syrian song [in front of] 70,000 people.”
Keys to Friendship
More recently Ahmad has worked with jazz pianist Edgar Knecht and together they’ve recorded Keys to Friendship: an exhalting album of Palestinian and Syrian folksongs.
On To those in the waves Ahmad's wailing is not just accompanied but somehow heard and carried on Knecht’s cascading arpeggios.
The song Green Peppermint (Tell me about Syria) is Ahmad’s personal recollection of his life before and during the war.
“Syria cries for its people to come home," he sings in Arabic. ..."waiting for the promise for relief. Remember the green peppermint waiting for you… to water it with your tears which are filled with sorrow and joy every day.”
The song was written by his friend Amer Helwani, “the man who asked me to taste the cat [with him]”, says Ahmad.
He tells the story of how, with little to eat but grass, Helwani had cooked an alley cat and invited Ahmed to share it.
Ahmed didn’t want to eat cat, he wanted his friend to write a song about being hungry which they could then film and post on social media to draw attention to their plight.
“You ask me to write a poem about being hungry,” retorts Helwani. “I don’t need to write poetry, look at what I eat!”
Ahmad remembers that despite his unhappiness, Helwani “had a lot of hope” so he wanted to keep the melody joyful, like a folkloric dance.
But “the double bass player played it sad,” he says, “and now when I play the song I miss everything [back home]”.
The list includes: his Ukrania piano, his teacher Fadi, playing in Yarmouk, Amar [with whom he went to fetch water every morning], his parents, his brother who disappeared, his singing partner Marwan who helped him push the piano into the streets every day.
Yarmouk misses you
Another song on the album is Yarmouk Misses You, a favourite of the children that used to come into the streets to sing with him.
“Oh my dear expelled people you’ve been away so long, come dear, come back! Miss you already much too long! You now live in Qudsayya? Yarmouk mises you, brother!”
It was written by Mahmoud Tamim, a Palestinian refugee who disappeared in March 2015.
“It’s also a song for Mahmoud Tamim, I don’t know if he’s still alive, and also my brother he’s been five years in prison," Ahmad explains, "and Niraz Saied the photographer [arrested in October 2015] who’s also in prison. A lot of prisoners in Syria, more than 60,000. We hope to have them out.”
“The song is not only about missing the Palestinian community, I miss also the Syrian community, my mother she is Syrian. It’s a kind of sweet dream, I mean 'let’s build together, let’s be together again'.”
World music thriving as Europe closes in on itself
Ahmad has been able to bring his wife and two children to Germany. They now live in Wiesbaden in the south. He gives music lessons and many, many concerts. In December 2015 he received the first International Beethoven Prize for Human Rights.
“It’s great how the Europeans react with the music. World music is going very well in Europe [but] in another way you see how the right is winning in Europe, with right politics."
In his autobiography Ahmad talks of the need to remain active all the time, the anguish of being in a quiet place where dark thoughts return to haunt him.
“Sometimes I feel full of joy, sometimes I hate myself for living such a wonderful life. I say to myself I’m sitting on a mountain of corpses” he writes.
But the book, the album and the concerts allow Ahmad to keep Yarmouk in people’s minds and give a face to the otherwise “grey silhouettes” of refugees in Europe.
As for his sons, Ahmed and Kinan, he says he might “teach them to build ouds” but, unlike his own father, won’t push them into music.
Back home in Yarmouk, Ahmad’s father made the right choice for his son. Now, thanks to him, his grandsons have the freedom to decide their own future.