Fighting the Syrian War through Dance

Millions are affected by the Syrian Civil War, yet only a handful are noticed. Ballet dancer, Ahmad Joudeh fights for his people and country through his passion for dance. DUNJA KARAGIC, writes.

In 1990, Ahmad Joudeh, a stateless Palestinian took his very first breath in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus. There, he grew up and lived fairly well until he had to learn to merely survive. This change happened in 2012 when the Syrian Civil War struck the suburbs of Damascus. At 26-years-old, he stands amongst piles of rubble that were once the infrastructure and soul of Yarmouk, struggling to believe the reality of such devastation. His muscular legs sway in the air, his movements so mesmerising they silence the noise of gunshots which echo through the dilapidated city. His feet kick the debris, the destruction which was once his street, his home, a place where he played as a child. The streets are now empty. There is no noise other than the gunshots, and his figure cutting the still air. There is no more life in the miserable apartment blocks. He gives up in attempting to identify which decrepit building was once his home. His swift, sharp steps are a sign of rebellion, to the war, to the discontent from his father and society about his passion for ballet. His bold and powerful movements speak for millions of the fear and grief the Syrian war has imposed; his dancing is a symbol of hope and perseverance.

Photo by Marc Driessen

He sits now, protected by the walls of his bright apartment in Amsterdam, speaking to me about; his childhood, the war, his plans for the future and most importantly his love for ballet that brought him here. Although the romantic European streets fill him with happiness, he misses his family back in Syria terribly and worries everyday about his country, which is now in its sixth year of civil war. His voice is gentle and friendly. The heaviest topics are lightened by his warm laugh. He has a certain magic of making everyone around him fall in love with his openness. The heavy fear of death no longer weighs down on him, nor does the distress of his father and society condemning his passion for dancing. “Life in Amsterdam is totally different to life in Syria. In Syria I was surviving and now I am living. And to live is something new for me,” he says thankfully before he begins to tell me stories of his past.

Surrounded by conservative neighbours, life in the Yarmouk Refugee Camp was sometimes difficult. Dancing was not accepted, especially ballet; a taboo in certain parts of Syria. Throughout his childhood, his father played music and painted, and although an artist himself, he wasn’t open to the idea of his son dancing. This passion sparked at a young age, when Ahmad and his brother, Amjad were playing music at a school performance in the city centre of Damascus. As Ahmad watched eight girls dance in the air, their movements in harmony with the music, he was mesmerised by every movement. “I felt like if I move with the music it’s better than making music. This is the way I wanted to be, not to sing or to play music but to move with the music. So I went home and tried to do it like them,” he recalls. He tried eagerly to replicate their movements at home, despite his father’s growing disappointment and anger. “My father he was against me, he was trying to stop me but he couldn’t, he did whatever he could but he couldn’t stop me,” he says with a witty but aching laugh, a mixture of achievement and regret. While his father raged, some days to the extremity of beating his legs, his mother watched in acceptance.

A strong woman with bold features and a great laugh, his mother inspired him, and gave him all the freedom to dance and to be himself. Being a gymnast in her youth, she taught him small but important things such as how to stretch correctly. She never stopped supporting her son’s passion for dance, even when it resulted in her husband divorcing her and leaving. When Ahmad saw an advertisement for Enana, a premium dance academy in Doha, Qatar, his mother told him “One day you will go to Enana”. This stayed in his mind forever, mixed with the dread of an approaching military service. Just as his mother had predicted, Ahmad finally attended Enana. He outshined, and his dancing often featured on the Enana Dance Academy website. He began travelling and dancing in neighbouring countries around Syria, and even performed on Lebanon’s ‘So You Think You Can Dance’, which afforded him growing recognition.

In 2016, a prominent Dutch, news and current affairs journalist, Roozbeh Kaboly stumbled upon a picture of Ahmad on the Facebook page of the Institute of Dramatic Arts. After years of covering the war, the photo sparked curiosity within Roozbeh. “I told myself, that’s it. I have to find out who this man is, what his story is,” Roozbeh recalls. They began speaking on the phone and developed a strong chemistry. “He could gradually trust me. And then I decided to go to Syria, with my camera, alone and filmed everything,” he says. Roozbeh spent ten days with Ahmad and his family in Damascus, seeing everything as it was. “They were not ashamed to show me their real life,” he says. He began filming a documentary called ‘Dance or Die’ about Ahmad’s life in Syria- an example of what the war does to real human beings.

Ahmad’s dancing is not only about himself. His movements speak for thousands. They speak for the death of a young girl, who died in front of his home which influenced him to share the aid that dance provided. “Once I was outside my house when the fighting started, a girl, 5 years old got killed in front of my eyes. It shook me…I kept thinking, I have to do something for these kids,” he recalls. This prompted him to propose the idea of teaching dance at SOS Children’s villages in Syria, an international independent, non-governmental organisation, which helps orphaned children. In Damascus, this organisation provides aid to children who have come from different cities without their parents, without anything. Initially, the directors disregarded his idea, telling him, “by dancing no one will be happy”, but Ahmad begged, “just let me try and I will succeed. Let them be happy at least”, until finally they said “okay just try”. The children loved it. They begged him to give more classes than just his usual weekly Saturday class. He began doing three days a week, all volunteer work.

Roozbeh recalls the happiness that Ahmad gave these children, “As soon as they saw Ahmad, I saw smiles coming onto their faces and they forgot for a while where we were. That they had their parents killed, that they had their villages destroyed, that they had their lives destroyed and they had lost everything they had. So that was the magic of dance that Ahmad had brought there.” Dance is what Ahmad uses for his own grievances and struggles. When he dances he is in present time. He can fly and let his thoughts go in freedom where there is no fighting.

“For me dance is to heal people, to help them accept themselves, to see life in a different way and to have the strength to face war and to face the society,” Ahmad says.

Roozbeh’s Dance or Die documentary has greatly influenced Ahmad’s freedom today. By surprise, it has now reached over two million viewers internationally. He never expected the documentary to receive the response it did. “We got calls, thousands of emails from people saying they would love to help,” Roozbeh says. Within days, schools from all over

Amsterdam and internationally began inviting Ahmad to visit. But the most important, was a call from the director of the Dutch National Ballet, Ted Branson who said “We have to get him here. We have to do something. We have to take action,” Roozbeh recalls, “And not long after that… he was here”.

Standing at the border of Lebanon and Syria, Roozbeh watches Ahmad walking towards him in darkness. The only light that the dark permits is the glimmer of his teeth as he smiles. He hugs Roozbeh for a long time. Tears erupt from his soft brown eyes. He sighs, “I’m free. I’m here. I don’t have to go to military service,” as they make their way to the embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. The door man recognises Ahmad from his earlier travels in Lebanon and greets them with an excited smile. The government officials try their hardest to balance the pressure of being professional with their own enthusiasm. When they reach Europe, people who have seen the documentary are treating him like a star.

Starting a new life in Amsterdam was both exciting and difficult. Becoming accustomed to basic needs such as safety and a reliable supply of electricity was hard. It was harder getting used to a new life without his family, something which he still struggles with today. He speaks to them everyday on the phone and sends money whenever he can.

Although the apartment granted to him by the Dutch National Ballet offers him safety and gratitude, he felt an enduring ache when he first arrived; an overwhelming urge to meet someone. A few months after arriving, he decided to visit his father in Germany. Ahmad hadn’t considered him his father for eleven years, but he couldn’t ignore a longing for some sort of closure; if not acceptance, then perhaps an apology. Mustering together all his courage, Ahmad made his way to Berlin. Roozbeh was right beside him, camera in hand with plans for filming a follow up documentary.

They reached Berlin’s largest refugee shelter. The place that was once Tempelhof Airport and a Nazi hangar is now home to thousands of refugees, including Ahmad’s father. Ahmad stood outside the room, which reads F9 in bold black letters, and although he knew what was inside he didn’t dare to go in. When he finally gathered all his power and walked through the curtain, his whole body shook as he refused to let go of the man waiting inside, his father.

There is comfort in knowing that his father now accepts him. Not entirely but partially. “Even though his father still didn’t recognise him as a dancer, he recognised him as an artist, even that’s a huge step. Ahmad could forgive him somehow. Somehow in his very Syrian way he apologised for what he did,” Roozbeh says.

The fighting in Syria continues as the death toll raises daily. The situation in Damascus is worsening. But Ahmad is no longer there. He is now watching the explosions on the screen of his smart phone, in his new home in Amsterdam. Today Roozbeh and Ahmad can almost wave to each other from the windows of their apartments, in Amsterdam’s city center, close to the main train station. They still keep in close contact and Roozbeh is currently working on a longer documentary about Ahmad’s life. When news from Syria arrives, Roozbeh watches Ahmad wait anxiously to call his mother back in Syria. He still keeps in contact with the children from the SOS Children’s Village through WhatsApp and tells them to send him a new video of them dancing every week, “

I want to keep them busy by thinking about creating something. It’s better to have competition between each other by art not by guns. I want to teach them how to fight by art,” he says.

Ahmad speaks of his plans for the future, something which is still new for him. “My plans for the future,” he laughs, “I never got used to thinking about the future, as in Syria we were just living the day, and if you say goodbye you say goodbye as if you will never come back home.” Now, he’s a busy man. His calendar is filled with invitations from all over the world.

He’s improving drastically, with the support of studios and incredible teachers that the Dutch National Ballet offers him. Yesterday he performed in front of thousands of people in Amsterdam, today he’s in Oslo. If the situation in Syria improves he hopes to return one day and build the Syrian National Ballet, “I want to bring what I learnt from Amsterdam to Syria. After this war, we need culture and art to heal our country again. I would love to give Syria ballet and to let all Syrian people accept this as something good for society,” Ahmad says.

He hopes by sharing his dancing, he can heal the wounds that the Syrian war has created, by giving everybody a strong personality to face whatever, as it has given him. ‘He has this X-Factor which touches everybody, wherever you are, whichever particular side you are on, you cannot not love him. Because he’s himself and he has a very strong soul,” Roozbeh says frankly. Whenever he performs, wherever he performs. Whether on a podium in Amsterdam in front of thousands, whether on a television screen in front of judges, whether on the rubble of his childhood home in front of a camera and a journalist, everyone is entirely awestruck.

This is because, his dancing fights for the thousands killed, the millions displaced. His movements silence all those who are a witness to it, because every move comes from his soul.

This article was written in 2017, as part of a university project.