Sunday, 31 March 2019

The Pianist Of Yarmouk by Aeham Ahmad

The Pianist Of Yarmouk by Aeham Ahmad
First published in German as Und die Vögel werden singen by S Fischer Verlag in Germany in 2017. English language translation by Emmanuel Bergmann published in the UK by Michael Joseph on the 21st March 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads, featured in 5Books1Theme: Blindness and WorldReads: Syria

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A man, a piano, a Syrian street under siege . . .

One morning on the outskirts of war-torn Damascus, a starving man stumbles through a once familiar street - now just piles of rubble. Everything he once knew has been destroyed by famine and war.

In despair he turns to his only comfort and joy, music, and pushes his piano into the street and begins to play. He plays of love and hope, he plays for his family and for his fellow Syrians. He plays even though he knows he could be killed for doing so.

As word of his act of defiance spreads around the world, he becomes a beacon of hope and even resistance. Yet he fears for his wife and children, his elderly parents. And he is right to be scared, because the more he plays, the more he and his family are drawn into danger.

Finally he is forced to make a terrible choice - between staying and waiting to die, or saving himself, but this would mean abandoning his family . . .

Aeham Ahmad's spellbinding and uplifting true story tells of the triumph of love and hope, of the incredible bonds of family, and the healing power of music in even the very darkest of places.

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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  1. That sounds like an emotional story.

  2. I do love a good memoir. This sounds like a really well done, important one.


    1. Ahmad so clearly shows how precarious our individual situations are. I can't understand the animosity against refugees when their predicament could so easily be anyone's.

  3. I think I would enjoy this. Wonderful review!

    1. It would make you cry, I think, but an awe inspiring read nonetheless