Excerpt from The Pianist from Syria by Aeham Ahmad, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Pianist from Syria

A Memoir

by Aeham Ahmad

The Pianist from Syria by Aeham Ahmad X
The Pianist from Syria by Aeham Ahmad
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 288 pages

    Mar 2021, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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A photo can never really tell you what happened before or what came after. Like that picture of me sitting at a piano, singing a song amid the rubble of my neighborhood. It was reprinted by newspapers all over the world, and some people said it's one of the photos that will help us remember the Syrian Civil War. An image larger than war. But when I think back to that moment, I think of another image, superimposed on all the rest, an image of three birds.

That morning before daybreak I had gone out for water, together with my friends Marwan and Raed. Getting water was backbreaking work. We had to rise early and push a 260-gallon tank on a cart to one of the last working pipes in the neighborhood, then fill up the tank and push it back home.

We lived in Yarmouk, a suburb of Damascus. The armies of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad had cut us off from the rest of the world. We had no water, no electricity, no bread, no rice. By that time, more than a hundred people had died of starvation.

After my friends and I had delivered the water to our street, I decided to get some more sleep. But a little while later, my two-year-old son, Ahmad, whispered something in my ear and then playfully poked his tiny finger into my eye. Ouch! I jumped out of bed. Clearly, I wasn't going to get any more rest.

I decided to heat up some water with cinnamon—we had run out of coffee and tea a long time ago. But there was plenty of cinnamon, ever since a group of militants had stormed a local spice depot. It hadn't seemed like such a bad haul at first, all this cinnamon, but think about it: Who needs cinnamon when you don't even have bread or sugar? That's why it was ridiculously cheap.

Several months earlier, a few young men from the neighborhood had started a music group. We had been performing out in the streets, standing around my upright piano. Every day, we hauled it out on a cart, carefully steering it through the rubble. We sang to escape the ever-present hunger that was gnawing at us. Our performances were popular on YouTube, but the people in my neighborhood could barely be bothered. And who can blame them? When you're hungry, you can't think about anything else.

On that day, the two of us had agreed to meet with a photographer named Niraz Saied. Marwan and I began pushing the piano, which was unbelievably heavy! Usually, there were six or seven of us carefully maneuvering it through the torn-up streets. We turned onto Palestine Street, which had once been a bustling commercial center and was now deserted.

The damage there was staggering. The ruined buildings were like concrete skeletons, giant tombstones reaching into the sky. Entire walls had been torn off, revealing the insides of various apartments, with pipes and cables sticking out. The street was littered with heaps of rubble, with weeds growing among them.

I sat down at the piano and thought about what I should sing. I had written dozens of songs in the past few months; they had simply poured out of me. Then I remembered a poem, scribbled on a piece of paper, that a man had given me a few days earlier.

His name was Ziad al-Kharraf. In the old days, he sold honey in our neighborhood. He was very cultured and educated, and he used to be quite wealthy. I knew him only in passing. Ziad had a doctorate, but I don't know in what. I do know that the honey was merely his hobby. He used to take trips to the hills outside of town, to meet with local beekeepers. Sometimes he even went abroad, to countries like Yemen, where he would sample new blends of honey. But that was then. Before the war.

Ziad had written the poem for his wife. She had been in the last weeks of pregnancy, and had transit papers for Damascus so that she could give birth to her child there. But something had gone wrong at the checkpoint: the soldiers wouldn't let her pass. Apparently, some bureaucrat had misspelled her name. She had to spend hours waiting while they tried to correct the error. When it became too much for her, she collapsed and fell onto her stomach. She died on her way to the clinic. The baby survived.

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Excerpted from The Pianist from Syria by Aeham Ahmad. Copyright © 2019 by Aeham Ahmad. Excerpted by permission of Atria Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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