In August 2016, the Dutch TV programme Nieuwsuur aired a report by Roozbeh Kaboly (TV journalist and producer for Dutch National Television) about a 26-year-old dancer. While millions of Syrians had fled their war-torn country, Ahmad Joudeh was one of those who had to stay behind because he was, as he explained, too poor to escape the war.
Dance or die: the first story on Ahmad
Filmer: Roozbeh Kaboly
Ahmad grew up in the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in Damascus. Following the eruption of the civil war in 2011, he had to leave this place. Yarmouk camp became the scene of intense fighting. He moved to another part of Damascus where he is still living now, with his mother.
When the war began he was a second-year student at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Art. As he recounts in the film, he was just starting to be a good dancer, participating successfully in the Pan-Arab version of the show ‘So You Think You Can Dance’. These days life is hard for him and his mother. Because of the war basic products are expensive and he has to work a lot to earn a living. Despite the extremely difficult circumstances, he continues to dance and to teach dancing.
We see Ahmad, followed by the journalist and the cameraman (the sound of shooting confirms the risks posed by doing this) walking through the streets of Yarmouk, the place he once called home. He is perplexed at what he sees. Even though he knows what happened, he still cannot imagine the complete destruction of the camp. With compassion for their suffering, he describes how the war made the earlier inhabitants homeless, and now spread out across the world. He can roughly identify the street where they lived and used to have a house until it was destroyed (by car bombs). He is unable to find even the remains of the house in the rubble and ashes all around.
When he hears shooting, his only reaction is: “They are shooting us, but they will never kill us.” Instead of breaking away that moment, he explains why he wants to dance there. “A lot of people died here and I will dance here: for their souls,” he explains. Only after speaking about the people in general, he begins to talk about his own family. “My uncles died here, too. I will dance for their souls, too.” He dances amidst the rubble in the street, which makes him ‘feel free inside the jail’. Physically bound to the place where he has to stay, through his amazing use of his body he seems able to escape from or to transcend his situation, at the same time.
Ahmad continues to practice ballet with other dancers. Despite the war, they won’t give up. It allows them to be happy for that moment and to forget the war and tragic losses.
His mother sees his dancing as an act of resistance against those who are fighting against their culture and who want to ban dancing as a part of it. Singing together is a shared form of resistance by Ahmad and his mother (and other friends), knowing that fighters nearby will hear it in the silence of the night. It is, just like his dancing, a peaceful form of resistance.
Ahmad also teaches dance classes to young people, including a group of orphaned children living in an SOS-village. It is a huge risk for him to do this. He has been threatened with violence if he continues to dance and teach dance. And yet he persists.
We see how the children welcome him when he arrives. When he asks them how they are doing, one answer is: “I am as my people is.” He doesn’t teach the children ballet but more accessible forms of dance. This time we do not hear classical music, as in the previous segment, but contemporary pop music. It is obvious that the children enjoy the class, as do the ones watching it.
Afterwards we see how he comforts a young boy who had to cry after he tried to tell the story of his life but was overwhelmed by grief. We see how he lifts his hands to move the tears from the boy’s face, comforting him with words of consolation.
The report ends with a visit to Palmyra, where his mother was born. They discover that everything has been destroyed there, including their personal memories, by ISIS fighters.
They also go to the Palmyra amphitheatre, where many people were killed. Ahmad’s first show was there, in 2007.
He tells about the compulsory military service that he must start next March 2017. He seems to admit that this causes him to fear for his future. “We will dance again,” he then says, and immediately he translates these words into dance.
His message is ‘Dance or Die’: a text tattooed on the back of his neck in an Indian language, because Indian people respect dance. It seems that nothing and no one can stop him from dancing, however hard they try. Ahmad would rather die.
But the motto can also be understood differently, and the portrait of Ahmad seems to support that interpretation as well. It can be read in the sense that there are only two alternatives: it is dancing ór dying. It seems that ‘dancing’ should be understood in a broader sense, to encompass his whole way of caring for himself and feeling free. It is an expression of beauty and hope. It is his way of taking care of the souls of those who lost their lives. It is his way of caring for people. His message seems to be that taking care is the only alternative to dying. He demonstrates that this humanitarianism cannot be killed, but will survive anyhow.
In my view, this report is a portrait of an exceptionally courageous young man, containing some remarkably hopeful messages. As a contemporary report of a person living in such distressing circumstances, it confronted me with a lot of questions. What should I do, seeing his life and so many others in equally distressing circumstances? The least I can do, it seemed to me, is to remain sensitive and not ignore stories like this.
The second report: Ahmad in the Netherlands
In the last six months, Ahmad’s life has taken quite a turn. Ted Brandsen, director of the Dutch National Ballet, was particularly touched by the report and wanted to do something. He thought there would be more people like him and indeed: a fund was set up, the Dance for Peace Fund. It is intended to shoulder the financial burden of Ahmad’s flight to the Netherlands, his study (a four-year programme at the Dutch National Ballet Academy) and his living expenses. It is expected that the fund will also be able to help other dancers living in the war zones.
Ahmad had to take the immensely difficult decision to leave behind his nearest and dearest and to leave Damuscus, in order to pursue his future. He made his debut on the Dutch stage on 10 December 2016, in the ballet production of Coppelia.
After Ahmad arrived in the Netherlands, the Nieuwsuur programme filmed him again. “My life now is the best and I am so sad for the Syrians,” he says while preparing food in his own house. “They sacrifice their life by coming here by the sea, facing all that trouble during the way. No one will have a house like this house.” He realizes only too well how fortunate he has been. I would say: relatively fortunate. He says that he wants to do something to help the refugees. He would love to teach dancing to children again, now turning his mind to children who have become refugees.
Dancing for peace, dancing against the war… I think it’s the right way to describe his way of dancing. His dancing is the bodily expression of something that transcends antagonism. Perhaps it is the expression of maintaining hope. His dance lessons can also be viewed as ‘teaching for peace’. They are a way of giving hope as well, especially to children who could so easily lose it, already at the beginning of their life.
Filmer: Roozbeh Kaboly
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Text editing: Beter Engels Vertaalbureau