Written by: Kvitka Perehinets.
Written by a second-generation Palestinian refugee, The Pianist from Syria offers a detailed account of the life of a musician growing up in an unofficial refugee camp in Yarmouk before and after the outbreak of the Syrian war.
The first half of the book takes the reader on a journey through Ahmad’s childhood growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp of 160,000. With his father a blind violinist, carpenter, and craftsman of musical instruments, much of the author’s youth was strongly influenced by music. Aeham’s recollection of his rebelliousness, often demonstrated in his tendency to skip school only to lock himself away in the back of his father’s shop to practice piano, is intricately intertwined with narrative on Yarmouk life. Ahmad successfully paints a colourful picture of the neighborhood, its residents, and the culture and traditions that make Yarmouk feel like a bustling, tight-knit community. Throughout the book, it is often referred to as a “camp,” despite it having long been part of Damascus. Many settled there purely because they had nowhere else to go, although many had not been granted Syrian citizenship. The description Ahmad provides of his life before the war makes the second part of the book all the more tragic: picturing the siege of Yarmouk, families living off water with cinnamon and children being shot in the streets against the backdrop of the happy, relatively untroubled childhood described several pages before leaves the reader with a sense of hopelessness.
Ahmad does not spare details: when Yarmouk becomes a pivotal location for fighting between the Syrian government and rebel forces, the reader is fully immersed in the despair and anguish of the situation. Descriptive accounts of people lining up to receive aid packages, life under the constant danger of sniper fire and the anxiety surrounding the process of going through checkpoints where young men were picked out at random and arrested at any time also show this. Yet, despite the complicated nature of the politics at hand, Ahmad does a brilliant job at making it understandable for the reader while effectively communicating the sheer brutality of the Assad regime and the historical background of the developing conflict.
The Pianist from Syria is a story of heartbreak, survivors’ guilt and anger, but it is also a story of hope, strength and faith. It is a reminder that daily life can quickly change dramatically: buildings to rubble, feasts to cinnamon water, families to individuals – reduced and changed all within a couple of months, regardless of whether you are rich or poor. One might say that the ease with which things have changed, stands in stark contrast to how complicated the situation had truly become at the end.
Aeham Ahmad’s voice provides a most sobering read for those who seek a more personal, intimate account of one of the world’s most devastating conflicts, while receiving a share of historical background to it at the same time.