The Pianist of Yarmouk by Aeham Ahmad

Read an except from the captivating account of Aeham Ahmad's life; a gripping portrait of a man's search for peace, and of a country that has been fiercely torn apart by war.

The Pianist of Yarmouk

It begins with music. I must have been about two years old.

My bed was by a window; the sun was shining in. I remember my father lying next to me, playing the violin, his eyes hidden behind black glasses. The scroll of the violin was pressed against the mattress; the instrument’s lower body was wedged under his chin. The violin bow came towards me, then swept back again. A sweet scent wafted through the room – there was a jasmine tree underneath the window. Pigeons were cooing in the birdcages outside as I listened with rapt attention to my father’s music. I felt snug and happy.

I already knew that Papa was different from other men. He seemed to have no eyes, only black glasses that showed my reflection. He never went out by himself, but he knew every nook and cranny inside our apartment. At night, he would turn off the electricity to save money, and the apartment would become pitch black. Whenever I had to use the toilet, I would call to him, and he would get up and guide me. He never bumped into anything, never knocked anything over. He always walked with calm, measured steps. And I trailed after him, stumbling, as if I were blind, not he. Something else astounded me: Whenever my mother couldn’t find something – the matches, for example, the oven gloves or the scissors – she’d ask him, ‘Abu Aeham, have you seen it?’ And my father would say, ‘Look in the kitchen drawer, to the right.’ And that’s where it was.

My father owned half a dozen canes but refused to use them, even though the streets of our neighbourhood were dangerous for a blind person. The pavements were uneven, cars were parked everywhere, and sometimes the workers cleaning the sewers would leave a hole uncovered for hours. Once, long before I was born, my father had been making his way along the pavement, feeling the ground with his cane, when suddenly he stumbled into one of these open holes. Disoriented and covered in the filth of the sewage basin, he realized he had lost a tooth. It was the last time he went outside by himself.

When I entered preschool at the age of three, I became his guide. He would take my hand, we’d start walking, and I would tell him what I saw: a car coming from the right, a pothole, a man running. After a few years, we no longer needed words. All it took was a small tug to the left or the right; he would always follow my lead. It was as if we were bound together by an invisible ribbon. As if my eyes were his eyes.

This is how we walked through Yarmouk, one of the most vibrant and crowded neighbourhoods of Damascus. The buildings were raw, unfinished, unpainted, and the streets were always clogged, full of honking cars. Tiny alleyways branched off the main roads, narrow and crooked, barely wide enough for a person to pass through. Whenever my father and I made our way through this tangled web, we chatted about everything and nothing. Then, out of the blue, my father would say, ‘Turn here.’ And he was always right. We never got lost, not once. At times I wondered if he really was blind.

Some days we’d walk to the corner shop to buy Alhamraa cigarettes. They were pungent and strong and he smoked two packs a day. Other days, we’d visit his favourite sister, Amina, who had studied biology. He loved to drop by for a cup of tea. Once, when his heart rate suddenly and inexplicably rose, I took him to the hospital. And every day, at eight in the morning, we went to my preschool together. After he dropped me off, he would visit a friend who lived around the corner. At eleven, he’d pick me up and we’d walk back home together. 


I was shocked. My father, my all-powerful hero, had only one eye – and it looked terrifying. I almost cried. ‘I’ll always be here for you,’ I stammered. ‘My eyes will be your eyes.’ My father put his glasses back on.

My mother, who was a teacher at a local elementary school, would come home at noon each day. For lunch, we had labneh – a kind of yoghurt cream cheese – served with bread and olive oil. Or shanklish, spicy cheese balls. Sometimes my father made me a fried egg. One day while doing so, he turned on the gas stove and poured oil in the pan, but then got distracted and went into the living room. Suddenly, there was the smell of burning oil. We both ran into the kitchen. The pan was engulfed in flames; the plastic handle had melted. Panicked, my father did exactly the wrong thing: he poured water onto the burning oil.

There was a small explosion and a giant cloud of smoke. ‘Get your pillow!’ he yelled. I ran to get it, and he used it to smother the fire.

We ran out into the streets, coughing. The neighbours had seen the smoke and came running: ‘Everything all right?’ they asked, handing us bottles of water. When my mother came home and saw what happened, she scolded him: ‘Ahmad, haven’t I told you a thousand times to wait until I get back?! You could have burned down the whole house.’

Challas, enough,’ my father said. ‘Let’s go back in.’

We began cleaning up the apartment. Finally, my mother said, ‘Abu Aeham, let’s go out for food.’ I knew then that all was forgiven. My father’s name was Ahmad, but she only ever called him that when she was mad at him. Most of the time, she called him Abu Aeham, a term of endearment: ‘Father of Aeham’.

The person most upset about this mishap was my father himself. He couldn’t believe this could happen to him! To him, the perfectionist! To him, who always planned ahead. He considered himself the master of his own destiny. When he was younger, he had trained to be a violinist, but then became a carpenter. Now he played the violin at weddings, in addition to building furniture for the young couples. His two careers were intricately linked – just one crooked cabinet could spell the end of his wedding performances.

Only once did I see him hurt himself while working. Afterwards, he kept sucking on his finger for hours, like a lion with a thorn in its paw. But he couldn’t find the thorn. There was a tiny wooden splinter underneath his skin, and it had become infected. I used tweezers to pull it out.

My father had built all our furniture with his own hands. Everything seemed massive to me. Only the colours were a little off. I loved to climb on top of the large walnut cabinet and hide. One day, a television crew showed up and shot a small segment about my father, the blind carpenter of Yarmouk.

Another time, as we were walking down a street and I was directing my father this way and that, always trying to evade different obstacles, suddenly I heard a dull thud. My father had hit his forehead on an open window shutter. I had been looking down at our feet, without paying attention to what was right in front of us. His glasses had fallen off and he was bleeding from a cut on his forehead.

‘Papa, I’m so sorry!’ I yelled, and burst into tears. He was still clutching my hand, not wanting to lose his bearings. By then, passers-by had noticed us;  one of them bent down to pick up the glasses. The man shot me a nasty glare. My father put his broken glasses back on. One of the lenses had a crack. Someone gave him a handkerchief and he wiped the blood off his face. I was still crying. ‘It’s all right, Aeham,’ he said. ‘It’s all right, let’s go home.’

Back at home, he took antiseptic and a cotton ball from a cupboard, sat down on a chair and dabbed at his wound. We were both silent. I watched him timidly. It was my fault that he’d been hurt! But then he stood up, gave me a kiss and said, ‘Aeham, don’t worry! Things like this just happen; we can’t avoid them.’

In those years, we often went to Duma on the weekends, outside Damascus. Duma had always been a wine-growing region, even back in the days of ancient Rome. Everyone knew that Duma had the juiciest grapes in the whole Middle East. But Duma also had many new buildings and developments. My parents had bought a small condo there. Each month, my mother set aside a fifth of her salary to pay it off.

One morning, just after sunrise, my father and I were walking through the vineyards, along a small river and then up into the hills. Suddenly, one of the vintners who knew my father called out, ‘Ahmad! Come, my friend, let’s have some tea!’ And so we went to his house.

Islam tells us that God answers the prayers of the blind. Out in the countryside, where faith was extremely important, my father was always treated with the utmost reverence. We sat down under one of the gnarled vine trees. The farmer poured us tea. I leaned against the vine’s sturdy trunk and filled my belly with sweet fruit. The grapes were dangling above my head, and the rays of the morning sun made them gleam. The two men discussed the world while I enjoyed the sparkling sunlight. This is one of my most cherished childhood memories.

When I was young, I used to draw my father as a stick figure with heavy black glasses. It’s the only way I knew him. Did he even have eyes? And if so, what did they look like? I was curious. One day – I was already in elementary school – I asked him, ‘Papa, what happened to your eyes?’ He looked astonished, then let out a loud, deep laugh. I joined in, high and clear, a countertenor to his baritone. ‘Do you really want to know?’ he then asked. ‘I’ll show you my eyes, but promise me you won’t be scared.’ I promised, and he took off his glasses, slowly turning his head from right to left. ‘Papa . . .’ I said haltingly. It was terrible.

His left eye looked grey and watery. The iris, the pupil and the white uvea were fused into a dull, sightless ball. He had no right eye; there was only a hole. I learned that a student had accidentally run into my father when he was in elementary school, his index finger piercing Papa’s eye, an accident that permanently robbed him of what little vision he had left. Before that, he had only been able to tell day from night, and only with his right eye. The eyeball had been so badly injured that it had to be removed.

I was shocked. My father, my all-powerful hero, had only one eye – and it looked terrifying. I almost cried. ‘I’ll always be here for you,’ I stammered. ‘My eyes will be your eyes.’ My father put his glasses back on.

For a while, we sat together in silence. Then we couldn’t bear it any more, and we changed the subject.

When I think back on this moment today, in my apartment in Germany, it breaks my heart, for I left him and my mother behind in Yarmouk. I ran away.

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