I can’t stop thinking about this book, about Aeham, his family, and Syria in general. I have made it my goal to read as many personal narratives from different voices in Syria, so when I read about Aeham Ahmad’s upcoming memoir The Pianist From Syria, I jumped on it. It’s beautifully written, so vivid and clear, and you fall in love with Aeham and his family, and also in love with Yarmouk, their home.
The first half of the book describes Aeham’s youth, growing up in the area of Yarmouk in Damascus. He grows up with his father, a blind violinist, carpenter, and craftsman of musical instruments, his mother, and his younger brother, in an apartment within the family building. Aeham’s life revolves mainly around music and his father’s dreams for him: that he become a great classical pianist. Despite coming from a poor, refugee background, Aeham and his family work hard to make his father’s dream come true, getting Aeham the piano and the lessons that he needs. Aeham is also a typical teen, rebelling when he feels like he isn’t treated correctly, skipping school to find solace in the music he wants to play, but his rebellion is different from other kids his age, he seems to rebel against a system rather than against himself or his family.
If you have been following the war in Syria at all you have probably heard of Yarmouk, and the utter destruction of the area. Yarmouk began as a refugee camp for Palestinians after 1948, where they were welcomed and provided with the means to build homes, schools, a hospital etc. Over the years Yarmouk became a real home to many people, where the generation of refugees gave birth to another generation who then gave birth to another. Aeham’s narrative really gives the reader an insight into Yarmouk, the bustling community, the people, the lives, the homes, and the culture. Even though the word “camp” still seems to be attached to Yarmouk it had long become a part of Damascus, a place where people had settled for good as they had nowhere else to go, even though they still were not granted Syrian citizenship. Yarmouk was home to so many.
In the second half of the book Aeham tells us of the siege of Yarmouk, of how his family bunkered down and lived off of cinnamon water, clover, and red lentil falafels. How they had to line up when aid packages were finally allowed through, under the constant danger of snipers and checkpoints where young men could be picked out and arrested at any time. The situation between Yarmouk and the Syrian government and other rebel armies is complicated. Aeham has a way with words that helps the reader understand just how complicated it was/is. Obviously the whole war is complicated, and has been going on for so many years now, different countries fighting their own wars on Syrian ground, amidst the brutality of the Assad regime and the plight of the everyday Syrian just trying to survive being bombed, shot, and starvation. But Yarmouk was always a neutral refugee camp, which then found itself under siege, and then overrun by Al-Nusra and then ISIS, and then the Syrian army again. If you do a quick search on the internet you will see what happened to Yarmouk and wonder how on earth people were able to survive. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
Aeham tells us of how amidst all of the hunger, despair, death, and destruction, music became a solace, and with the help of friends, and singers from the camp, he would wheel his piano around the streets of Yarmouk, and sing. They would sing songs written by the people of Yarmouk, singing of their plight, of their despair, and their hope. His YouTube videos made the rounds around the world, and then one photo of him playing the piano amidst the rubble was taken and made headlines.
Amongst Aeham’s story lies the story of lives destroyed by war, of survivor guilt and anger, but it also is a story of courage, strength, and humanity. I also found that Aeham did a wonderful job showing how fast life can go from normal to a warzone, however rich or poor you are, wherever you may live. Before 2011 Yarmouk was a thriving community, today it is rubble, all the while other areas of Damascus continue on as if the country were not in turmoil. You can’t help imagining yourself in Aeham’s situation and wondering how you would fare. The Pianist From Syria is a sobering read, obviously because of the sheer sadness of the narrative, and the despair of so many people, but also because of the ease of how it happened.
Aeham’s honesty and voice are so strong and important: one I feel we should all read and listen to. I worry that people have become so numb to the suffering of others, but hopefully voices like Aeham’s will provide a greater view of what it means to be Syrian, and what it means to be a refugee. I also hope it will help people to understand how dangerous the country is for young Syrian men, and why so many flee. Often it is because the only other prospect is dying in a prison somewhere and never being found again.
Thank you Aeham for your beautiful words, and for sharing your story. Also thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the advance copy.