There is a piano that continues to survive alongside the Palestinians in besieged Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus.
Earlier this year the piano appeared in the above YouTube video; it was the first time I learned of its existence. A favorite musical instrument, my ears were absorbed and my eyes followed each stroke of its keys.
That decrepit piano from Yarmouk appeared on the screen in front of me as a living, breathing thing. As I watched, the piano sang, directed by cold, dry fingers which appeared almost fossilized.
A young Palestinian pianist from Yarmouk dropped his head to the keyboard and his music spoke. The tune that came from the piano did not have the same effect the piano usually triggers in my psyche; the melody created a feeling of discomfort, sweaty palms and a dull anxiety, causing my teeth to clench throughout the four-minute video.
My usual joy in the piano gave way to melancholy as I watched a dystopian reality unfold in the video: five young men stand shoulder to shoulder facing the piano; they sing along despite the bitter cold that shivered in their malnourished bodies. They tuck their hands in their pockets and sing along with the angry piano notes: “O displaced come back, the traveling has been far too long.”
The Yarmouk piano surfaced again on social media on 3 October, in a video titled “Blue.”
Just like the first time, my second encounter with the piano was by coincidence while I scrolled aimlessly on a social media timeline. Produced by Bidayyat and Rad Fael (Reaction), the short video work is a personal story narrated by its director, Abo Gabi, who is displaced tries to Skype with his friend who has remained in Yarmouk.
The video begins on a gray street in Yarmouk refugee camp as a screaming ambulance zips by. The camera walks the viewer through the grim reality of the besieged camp and settles on the pianist who is accompanied by several youths who sing “Promises, promises, promises! While our people are dying.”
At 9:39, during a scene showing a funeral procession, the camera stops at a handwritten sign hanging on the windshield of an ambulance, reading; “I’m the 80th person to die from starvation because of the oppressive siege of Yarmouk.” The video ends with a note that reads: “Yarmouk camp has been under siege for the last 450 days,” followed by Aeham Ahmad playing his piano, destruction in the background.
In the video’s description on YouTube, Abo Gabi describes his motivation for creating the video:
“I’ve had a recurring dream since I fled the Yarmouk Refugee Camp and came to Beirut. The dream takes me back to besieged Yarmouk, where death and destruction have found a way to settle in all its details. I am not sure whether it is a dream or a nightmare. But I live in this open-ended waiting with images of that place and the difficulty of abandoning it. Maybe the sound of my friend Aeham’s piano changed the nightmare into dream and the place into a legend. Here, there is no geography, a place between two times, the first is a tent and the second is bags packed for other conquests. These conquests stimulate the hardness and bitterness of our catastrophes and previous disappointments. We pack our luggage to find only our memory that tells the stories of our relation with the wind. We, as witnesses of disappointment and hope.”
The pianist of Yarmouk appeared to me again three days ago. This time he is alone, his piano painted white and decorated with Palestinian colors and trademarked by Naji Al-Ali’s iconic cartoon character Handala. In this third video, Aeham plays his latest piece, “Ends.” On Facebook he describes the song as “(a) melody of the Levant mixed with Yarmouk’s wretched streets compressed into three minutes.”
This latest video compelled me to find and contact Yarmouk’s pianist. I felt that I needed to meet him, virtually at least, and learn how he is surviving. I wrote to Aeham and he responded. The 27-year-old Palestinian refugee from Yarmouk shared bits of his story:
“At the start of the siege in the camp, I decided to isolate myself from music and decided to stay neutral to the Syrian conflict. I sold falafel for six months, and kept music in my soul. But I couldn’t help it so I took out my piano and fixed it onto my uncle’s vegetable cart and started moving it between depressing neighborhoods in the camp.
“The camp’s streets were desolate; all the beloved ones who used to fill the street with their noise and joy were gone. I started playing my piano and moving in the streets of Yarmouk to bring back hope. That’s why I roamed the streets because I couldn’t keep the music quiet. I fed my body on falafel but I had to nourish my spirit and so despite hunger and siege I kept playing my piano.
“I started playing the piano when I was five; I studied music in the Arab conservatory from the age of six until I was sixteen. I usually play academic music on my piano but the current circumstances have inspired me to compose music that speaks about the siege and the crisis in a camp besieged for two years and a half.”
When we finished chatting, I was left wishing that I could simply take that familiar two-hour taxi ride from Beirut to Damascus, meet Aeham in person and invite him for a thick cup of tea in the rambling old streets of Syria’s ancient capital.
Someday the Palestinians and Syrians who survived the war will tell stories about what happened in Yarmouk. People will recall how they ate grass to remain alive during the siege. In survivors’ collective memory, Aeham and his piano will live. In the future, some might say Aeham’s piano was a legend.
When people recall Yarmouk, perhaps they will say:
Remember while snipers shot anything that moved and in the middle of this destruction, one young man broke the silence, fixed his piano on his uncle’s vegetable cart and rolled around the camp playing music in those bleak streets? Remember when one young man defied death by blasting his piano notes over the deafening sounds of bombs and bullets?