Cover Image: The Pianist of Yarmouk

The Pianist of Yarmouk

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Member Reviews

Many thanks to Netgalley, Penguin UK and Michael Joseph for my copy of this book. This was a powerful, moving and sometimes harrowing memoir of the author's story, from his Syrian childhood,   the atrocities that the war brought to his homeland, through to his eventual escape to Germany to rebuild his life. Both tragic and ultimately uplifting, this was a great book.
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Aeham Ahmad is the son of parents who were refugees to Yarmouk in Damascus, Syria from Palestine during the Palestine – Israel conflict of 1948. As Palestinian refugees, their official status was neutral in their adopted country.

Aeham’s father was a blind cellist, an instrument maker and extremely resourceful and talented in many ways. From an early age Aeham cared for his father by helping him to navigate the streets of a Yarmouk and beyond. They had their own instrument shop in Yarmouk in a part of a thriving area of businesses and souks.

Showing an early tenacity, courage and perseverance Aeham Ahmad urged on by his father attended a prestigious music school in Damascus and learned to be a classical pianist. As he grew older, he rebelled at his father’s insistence that he carried on learning music as his father believed it would give him an excellent skill that could take him far in the world. Little did he know exactly how far!

As the civil war in Syria began to reach a peak, Yarmouk became a city under siege.

In December 2012, fierce clashes erupted in Yarmouk, an area of Damascus home to approximately 160,000 Palestine refugees. The intensity of these clashes and the widespread use of heavy weapons caused numerous civilian casualties, severe damage to property and the displacement of 140,000 Palestine refugees and thousands of Syrians. In July 2013, a state of siege emerged in Yarmouk, trapping the remaining 18,000 civilians inside and preventing the entry of commercial and humanitarian goods. Severe hunger and deprivation emerged over the following six months, while intensive armed clashes continued.
https://www.unrwa.org/crisis-in-yarmouk
In April 2015 extremist groups took over control of large parts of Yarmouk and it became a battleground fought over by the groups. Conditions were horrendous. The area was bombed back to the Stone Age. Apartment blocks destroyed and many of the people survived amidst the ruins. They were starving. People starved to death. Aeham discovered a way of making falafels using stored supplies of lentils and distributed them to the starving population.

As a way of entertaining people, particularly the children and using his music as a form of protest, Aeham wheeled out his piano into the streets to play. Videos of him playing were uploaded to YouTube. Aeham Ahmad became known throughout much of the Western World.

His eventual escape from the area was miraculous and hair raising and followed on Facebook by thousands of people.

Watching the videos on YouTube of him playing the piano in the bombed out streets surrounded by small children is heartbreaking and those images will stay with me, particularly when those who choose to do so for their own ends use the refugee crisis created by war in Syria for negative propaganda.

A fascinating book about the strength of human spirit and suffering and the ability to survive against all odds. Half way through this book I was desperate to read the whole story of the Pianist of Yarmouk and it was on my mind when I fell asleep at night. Consequently I woke up during the night to finish the rest of the book.

With thanks to the publisher for my copy via a NetGalley
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The Pianist Of Yarmouk is the second memoir I have read in the past year that profoundly illustrates the desperate situation being fled by Syrian refugees and displaced persons. Perhaps this book didn't have quite the emotional impact of the previous memoir, Butterfly by Yusra Mardini, but it is still a powerful and moving account. Ahmad talks of his childhood, growing up primarily under the care of his blind Palestinian refugee father who was the inspiration for his musicality. We learn of their struggle for Ahmad to be accepted into the rich people's world of music schools and the conservatoire, and then of how frighteningly swift and easy it was for their successful musical instrument shop business to be lost in someone else's war. I didn't know that Yarmouk is (or, now, was) a refugee camp for Palestinians displaced by the Israeli state. Many have been there for decades, unable to return to their Palestinian homes. They resolutely remained neutral at the start of Assad's war, but were apparently still ideal scapegoats.



Ahmad's descriptions of life under siege are understandably harrowing to read. Even with the respite of his music, I could feel how much risking one's life every day just to find a little food or drinking water took its toll on everyone in the family. The complete change from relative affluence to total destitution is difficult to comprehend, especially at the speed with which it happened in Syria. The impression we in Britain are given of the refugees who actually make it to the EU borders doesn't make any concessions for who these people Used To Be. There is no recognition of their skills and talents. I was interested to notice that both The Pianist Of Yarmouk and Butterfly were first published in Germany where there is an active and successful refugee integration programme. Ahmad and his family have benefitted from this foresight and I appreciate this opportunity to have learned his story because of it.
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If there's ever been a book that illustrates the immense power of music then this is it. What drew me to it, in particular, was the fact that I can personally attest to the strength and courage it can bring to your life, and I feel as though I may not have got this far through the chronic pain conditions I have without this power. One of my favourite writers and philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche once said: "Without music, life would be a mistake", and I believe that to be absolutely true.

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. Most of us will remember seeing it in the media, and boy was it a beacon of hope and a deeply profound moment when I smiled as people around me realised both the healing power of music and its ability to cross generations, cultures, religions and racial divides. His desire to try to help residents forget the traumatic situation they were in and to see the children smile again led to him pushing his old brown piano through the streets to entertain and give respite to the community, if only for a fleeting few minutes whilst the bombs stopped dropping.

Aeham Ahmad's journey through life has been tough; life in Syria was never easy but it became a whole new ball game when the civil war kicked in. This is the account of one man's quest to find peace in whatever way possible. It's a moving, heartfelt and compelling true tale. There are a number of these type of books that have emerged from Syrian survivors over the past few years, but I must admit this is one of the most affecting.

Desmond Tutu's words are particularly apt here: "Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness." Mr Ahmad's strength to keep hope alive whilst facing the type of life-altering adversity most of us will never encounter shows his character, and although no-one should ever have to go through the devastating living conditions war brings, as always, the victory will be all the sweeter for Ahmad having had to struggle to achieve safety and success. Make no mistake, though, this is an often emotive, sometimes shocking but always captivating story, and one I'm likely to remember for a long time to come.

Many thanks to Penguin - Michael Joseph for an ARC.
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