He became famous as the pianist who played in the rubble of war-torn Syria, but Aeham Ahmad is much more than that. He's now a popular musician and has established a home in Wiesbaden with his family.
Snow covers the streets of Wiesbaden, softening the sounds of the busy city. Only the crunching noise from steps in the snow ring out loud and clear. A young man is walking down Wilhelmstraße. He pulls his thin jacket tighter around his narrow shoulders and lifts his face up higher.
"Could we do that again?" asks the cameraman filming for the DW multimedia special "After the Escape." He waves to the young man, who runs back to his starting position to do it over for the camera. He's patient, despite the bitter cold of January and his runny nose.
Here — and yet not here
"Whenever I walk down this street, I always have to think of Damascus," Aeham Ahmad said during our interview. "I remember how my wife and I would walk through the old part of the city. We thought we had all the time in the world."
Ahmad's Damascus does not exist anymore. Innumerable bombs have rained down on it. Fighters have moved through the twisting streets, plundering, killing people. But Ahmad did not let himself be deterred by that destruction for long. Nearly every day, he and his friends would pull his piano into the ruins where he would play in order to boost people's spirits, especially those of children. Friends would film him making music in the rubble.
The internet videos made him famous around the world.
He played and played: to oppose hate, war, hunger. Then one day, a grenade exploded nearby, injuring one of his hands and his face. Ahmad just barely survived. The scar above his eyebrow and his runny nose, which will not go away, attest to that.
A fateful 27th birthday
Much worse than these physical testimonies, however, are some of his memories. "Zeinab was a little girl who would always come and sing," recalled Ahmad. One day a random bullet hit her, killing her instantly. Ahmad did not want to play the piano after that, but his friends insisted that he continue. So he did — until that fateful day in April 2015.
It was Ahmad's 27th birthday, and a friend and Ahmad's father were helping him to try to smuggle his piano across a checkpoint manned by the "Islamic State" (IS). The guards carrying Kalashnikov rifles stopped them and set the piano on fire because they consider music sacrilegious. Ahmad's blind father stepped in front of his son and his friend, claiming that the piano belonged to him and that he did not know the two young men. That prevented what could have been a much worse situation.
The fear that Ahmad must have felt on that day still radiates from his dark eyes. It will likely never completely disappear. But he is still open and boyish when he speaks. Once he starts talking, it's hard to stop him, and he laughs a lot. And yet, all of a sudden, melancholy can take hold of him again — like when he talks about his parents, who remain in Yarmouk, an area of Damascus, or his brother Alaa, who has been missing since 2013.
Aeham Ahmad was born and grew up in the Yarmouk Camp for refugees. He is a member of the Palestinian minority in Syria. His father, a blind music instrument builder, fostered his musical talent from an early age. Ahmad started taking piano lessons when he was five years old and later studied music in Damascus and Homs. But becoming a pianist was never his dream; it was more of his father's.
While Ahmad has found musical success, becoming a pianist was his musician father's dream for him. The pianist has performed all over Germany.
Fleeing Syria, leaving family
After his piano was destroyed, Ahmad was overcome with fear. He, his wife Tahani and their two young sons, Ahmad and Kinan, fled, but they did not get very far. Soldiers captured them and locked them up in a prison just outside of Damascus. It was a miracle that the family was released a few days later.
Then they made a very difficult decision: Tahani and the children would go back to Damascus, but Ahmad would flee to the West. He did so by way of Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Croatia and Austria. He reached Munich, Germany, in September 2015 and was then assigned to the cities of Olpe, Kirschheim, Münster, and Gießen, before being allowed to settle in Wiesbaden, the capital of the federal state Hesse.
Had the war in Syria never occurred, the world might never have heard of Aeham Ahmad. And had he never shared his heartfelt music with the world, he might not have been able to gain a foothold in Germany so quickly.
Music opened doors
From the very beginning, Aeham Ahmad had "friends" in Germany due to his videos. Famous German artists such as musician and actor Herbert Grönemeyer and musician Judith Holofernes invited him to play with them in guest performances. Ahmad was increasingly able to earn money with his music and build a life for himself in Germany.
In August 2016, his greatest wish was granted: after a year of separation, he once again was able to wrap his arms around his wife and his two kids. They now live all together in a small apartment in Wiesbaden.
But despite his musical success, Ahmad worries that interest in him could abate somewhere down the line and that he would no longer be successful as a pianist. "I'll end up selling falafel or something again," he said. "I am Aeham Ahmad from Syria. Without my story, no one will want to come to my concerts anymore!" In addition, he still has his damaged hand from the grenade to contend with, so he could never become a concert pianist.
He may be limited in technical skill, but his virtuoso, emotional pieces touch people where it matters most: in their hearts. The "pianist in the rubble" may thus one day become simply the pianist Aeham Ahmad.
Discover more about Aeham Ahmad and other artists who had to find home in a foreign land inDW's online feature "After the Escape."
You can find the TV documentary on YouTube.
Or watch it directly below: