Aeham Ahmad, known as the Pianist of Yarmouk, gives concerts throughout Germany and the world and has published a book about his life, also titled The Pianist of Yarmouk. He grew up as a Palestinian refugee in Syria, before fleeing the war there, and came to Germany in 2015. 

His concert format often includes passages from his book read aloud by a narrator before his mournful music fills the air. Chords built from Middle Eastern scales and vocalizations are contrasted with virtuosic riffs and passages, combining to evoke fear, sadness and anger. At a concert at the glittering Baroque Konzertgalerie in Steinfurt, Germany, Ahmad also included familiar German tunes, with jazz chords entering the mix. Ahmad enthusiastically encouraged the audience to sing along to both Syrian and German songs as part of the performance. After the concert, I spoke with him about life as a twice-over refugee, his earliest musical training, his experiences of German audiences, and why he’s thinking of changing professions. 

VAN: What are the first musical experiences that you can remember?

Aeham Ahmad: I was living in a refugee camp for Palestinian people in Syria, in Yarmouk, and I was five or six years old when my father—I don’t know at all why—decided that I should be a classical pianist. It was unbelievable that he came up with this idea! So, my first experiences involved the Czerny exercises. I heard the local music on the radio but I wasn’t allowed to play it, even though it was so much easier than the studies and Mozart or Beethoven that I was expected to play. Why should I play Mozart in a refugee camp? To me, it made no sense. But my father somehow found a piano (I don’t even know where he got it), which he tuned himself. My father was a violinist, but in the folk tradition where the violin is tuned [in fifths] which makes it easy to play in octaves. Because he could tune the violin, he had a good ear and was also able to tune the piano for me. His friend from the band played the keyboard, but only using three fingers, not in the classical way. He was my teacher for a while until I went to music school in Damascus. 

There I would receive one 15-minute lesson per week. I had to play two études, and I had to play them right, otherwise they would kick me out. So my father paid for a private teacher as well. I had a Russian teacher who helped me learn what the “real” teacher was expecting. Sometimes the sheet music was so bad I couldn’t even read it. Photocopied too many times and no longer straight, or with some notes missing. I just did not understand: My father was poor, I was poor, and he was paying for these lessons. It felt like fighting against the community. My father and I fought over this for ten years. Yet I would still practice for four or five hours a day, while the other children were playing outside.

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You came to public attention because of a photo of you, wearing a green t-shirt, sitting at your piano in the rumble of bombings. What made you take your piano outside to play?

There’s something important to understand about this photo: It wasn’t the first time. I began playing in the community, bringing culture and music to people in the camp, in 2003. I would teach people songs and we had a band. In 2013, we started to take this outside—me and the band. We played to lift the spirits of the community as the war was all around us. This photo was taken in 2014 by award-winning photographer Niraz Saied. [Saied was imprisoned by government police shortly after and is reported to have died in prison.] There was no money to pay the band, the logistics were tricky. So on that day I played by myself. But essentially this was group work, the community had empowered me to be there. The rest of the world wanted it to be like the movie “The Pianist.” The world only sees the “holy horrible” situation. This photo was the introduction and without this introduction I wouldn’t be this person now, but there is falseness to the portrayal. I was lucky and unlucky. I was lucky to have some international recognition, but at the same time, the photo caused problems for me and my family. 

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The problems caused by your international recognition brought negative attention to you and your family from the Islamic State, who eventually destroyed your piano. After fleeing, what was it like to arrive in Germany? 

I arrived in Germany in 2015, when so many people had fled the war. I had come alone without my wife and children and was placed, as everyone was, into crowded accommodation. But I was lucky to be popular already. The musician and actor Herbert Grönemeyer and the musician Judith Holofernes invited me to perform, but I was torn. I was born a refugee, and this image in Germany is “poor guy, help him, support him.” I didn’t just want people’s pity. However, it’s useful having important friends. Most people have to wait more than two years in the camp to receive legal status in Germany; I had mine granted in six months.

You’ve described your classical education, but what are the influences that inform your own compositions and improvisations?

In Syria there was a very clear distinction between classical and oriental music. I composed in the local style and I taught people songs that we could perform together. I hadn’t really thought about combining the two styles until I came to Germany. Now I feel more able to fuse the styles. Besides, the climate has changed since Beethoven was alive. If you hear Italian or African music, you can hear the climate in the music. Why not put the heat of the Middle East and the temperature of Beethoven together? In Syria I would have one concert a year, and I would play Beethoven or Mozart. Now I have loads of opportunities to try out different things and gauge their reception.

How is your fusion music received by German audiences?

German people have warm hearts, but they don’t show it in their faces! At the concert in Steinfurt, I played a version of the finale from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “Ode to Joy,” with oriental and jazz mixed in, and I got a standing ovation not once but twice. Why not mix it together? Beethoven isn’t sitting between us, telling us what is wrong or not wrong. People like it or don’t like it; but it’s not wrong.  

You’ve said, “Without my story, no one will want to come to my concerts anymore!” What does this mean for your performing future?

The future is an everyday discussion that I have with myself. The uncertain nature of being a freelance musician is very stressful. I have my wife and three children and my parents to think of. Every day I check my emails wondering if I’ll have enough bookings. Plus there’s the travel away from home. For example if I have one engagement in Berlin—that’s five hours from where I live, to talk for 45 minutes, before traveling five hours home. They pay me of course, and if I didn’t do it then maybe they’d find another refugee that would do it for free, but the atmosphere of having to be grateful: I’m not fond of that. 

I recently had a meeting about training as a carpenter. A lot of the jobs of a carpenter I already know how to do from the necessity of fixing things in Syria, and I could get a job with a regular salary and insurance. I wouldn’t have to worry. Yes, I know, what if I hurt my hands and then I couldn’t play? If that happens then I know it was my choice. The effort of my musical performances, to be a smiling person—it’s not fake, but it’s extreme. I love to play concerts and I love the connection between me and the audience, but I’m not a happy person. I’ve dedicated my life to something that I never chose and now I am trapped retelling the saddest times of my life in order to make a living. Becoming a carpenter would be the first time I actually decided for myself what to do, and I can let the music be a beautiful accompaniment to my other work. 

Photo © Ingo Winkelströter

How has your childhood and experiences with your father shaped how you want your children to grow up?

I appreciate my father because he always pushed me for music. I didn’t always understand why, but he worked so hard to give me opportunities. The first thing I want for my children is peace and the second thing is a passport, so that they can have freedom. [Then] I want them to enjoy music. They have a really lovely teacher right now who encourages them, and they have fun. If one of them said that they wanted to choose music for their career, then it’s like me and carpentry: It is their choice and they will live with the outcome—good and bad. ¶

Correction 9/21/2022: This article misstated the police force which imprisoned photographer Niraz Saied. It was government police, not the Islamic State Secret Police. VAN regrets the error.

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Hannah Parry is an organist and journalist from the UK now based in northern Germany. She writes about travel, adventure and humanitarian topics.