Last month a very special event took place at Emerson College in Forest Row, East Sussex – a concert by Aeham Ahmad, known as the Pianist of Yarmouk.
For four years, Aeham Ahmad played his piano as an act of human solidarity during the devastating war in Syria. In the suburb of Yarmouk, on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, he wheeled out his piano to perform in the streets, playing for the local children and neighbours who were looking for some respite from the misery and hardship of a long siege, during which many starved. He would sit at his piano, in the midst of all the rubble and destruction, and would play to keep up the spirits of the local people.
This was dangerous work; he has a scar on his forehead and another on his hand, where a tendon was severed by shrapnel and sewn back together by a carpenter, who agreed to operate on him because the doctors had all fled. He has mental scars, too, and thinks constantly of the people he left behind in Yarmouk, which the UN branded a “death camp” last year; and of Zaineb, a young girl murdered by a sniper, as she sang beside him.
Ahmad’s piano was eventually destroyed by Isis, burned before his eyes. His family’s music shop, which housed thousands of instruments – 1,200 ouds, 600 guitars, and pianos – was bombed to pieces by Syrian regime forces. In 2015, unable to carry on any longer, the pianist finally fled Syria, crossing Turkey and risking death on the Mediterranean, before arriving in Germany. His wife, two young sons, and parents have now joined him.
During his concert to a packed audience at Emerson College, we heard the extraordinarily emotive playing of Aeham as he evokes what it felt like to be under siege and bombardment, veering between an outraged resistance to injustice and descent into total despair. Occasionally, his voice erupted in a wail of wordless horror and grief and his hands pounded the keys or plucked and thumped the piano strings. You can hear and see him here.
Between the musical pieces, Barbara Schiller from stART International (an anthroposophical organisation based in Germany which works with traumatised refugee children), read extracts from Aeham’s book about his experiences, The Pianist of Yarmouk.
This concert, called ‘Art for Peace’, was a collaboration between Emerson College, stART International, and Aeham Ahmad. For the refugee children with whom stART International works, life has changed fundamentally and will never be as it was before their exile. Traumatic experiences such as war, escape from dangers in the home country or natural disasters are particularly harmful to children and stART international considers its task to be to assist children in these situations. They have found that artistic or playful activities under pedagogical and trauma-therapeutic guidance directly activate the self-healing and power of resistance of the child and thereby help it to regain its stability and inner balance. A report here shows just how difficult life is for these children who live in the refugee camps.
On the morning following the concert, Aeham and Barbara led a workshop for people interested to find out more about trauma pedagogy and emergency aid for children. As a result of the generous response from the concert audience, we were able to make a significant donation to the work of stART International; and the College is in discussion with them about possible further collaboration in the future.
Aeham Ahmad is now a YouTube star. Initially, he was anxious about being recorded, and astonished when the videos began to go viral. Later, he realised that the internet gave him a kind of freedom, bridging the gap between his experiences in Yarmouk, and those of us in the rest of the world who are gradually becoming aware that there is no essential separation between ourselves and all the people who are suffering in conflicts such as in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
If you would like to make a donation to the work of stART International, you can do so using these details:
stART international e.V. – Postbank München –
BIC/SWIFT: PBNKDEFF – IBAN: DE56 7001 0080 0009 0098 05