‘Art for Peace’ - a Concert with The Pianist of Yarmouk

Monday, 02 December 2019 By Jeremy Smith

On Friday 15th November a very special ‘Evenings@Emerson’ event took place in Ruskin Hall – a concert by Aeham Ahmad, known as the Pianist of Yarmouk, combined with readings from the book detailing his experiences by Barbara Schiller of stART International.

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, often surrounded by children or neighbours looking for an escape from misery and hardship, during a long siege where many starved. He would sit at his piano – calm and concentrated, surrounded by rubble – 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 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. 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 in Ruskin Hall, 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. 

This concert was a collaboration between Emerson College, stART International, (an anthroposophical organisation based in Germany which works with traumatised refugee children), and Aeham Ahmad. For refugee children, life has changed fundamentally and will never be as it was before. Traumatic experiences such as war, escape from dangers in the home country or natural disasters are particularly harmful to children. stART international considers its task to be to assist children in these situations. 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. 

The following morning, 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 Steve Briault of Emerson College is in discussion with them about possible further collaboration in the future.

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 Europe who are gradually becoming aware that there is no essential separation between ourselves and all those who are suffering in the Syrian war or in Afghanistan and Iraq.