Ahmad Joudeh: From the rubble of Yarmouk refugee camp to the Dutch National Ballet

Ahmad Joudeh: From the rubble of Yarmouk refugee camp to the Dutch National Ballet
7 min read
18 July, 2017
Society: Born stateless in Yarmouk Camp, the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria, Joudeh has faced a lifetime of adversity in his musical pursuit and beyond.
Joudeh was born stateless, a Palestinian in Yarmouk, and practiced on the refugee camp's rooftops
When Ahmad Joudeh saw an al-Nusra Front fighter shove a gun to his uncle's head, he leapt in their direction. His mother shrieked as he stepped between the fighter and his uncle shouting. "If you are man enough, shoot me, not him." The gun fired - but only upwards, into the grey skies that enveloped what was once Yarmouk refugee camp.

"This tells you one thing. They are fake and just want us to be afraid," 26-year-old Joudeh told The New Arab.

He attributes his fearless personality to his lifetime's passion for dance. "Dance gives me this strong personality and even the power to confront al-Qaeda in Syria face-to-face."

Born stateless in Yarmouk Camp, the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria, Joudeh has faced a lifetime of adversity in his musical pursuits and beyond. As Yarmouk turned into a battleground for al-Qaeda-like extremism throughout the Syrian war, his house was demolished, and his family was either uprooted or killed. 

Yet through all the hardship and loss he has endured, his commitment to dance has always remained resolute.

"I lost everything I used to have except dancing. It is deeply rooted in me," said Joudeh, now performing at the Dutch National Opera and Ballet.
Yarmouk camp has been hard-hit by the Syrian war [AFP]
Click to enlarge

How did Joudeh walk this unconventional path - from Yarmouk Camp to this globally acclaimed ballet company? 

Dancing behind locked doors

Joudeh's musical ear attuned at a young age when his father, a musician, encouraged he and his younger siblings to perform in a band together. Joudeh took on the role of singer - and at age 8, he stepped foot outside the camp for the first time, to perform in a local children's talent competition in Damascus.

The group that took the stage following his performance was a troupe of girls dancing Swan Lake.

"The sound of the flute grabbed my attention, and I began moving with the music without knowing what I was doing," Joudeh recalled. "I began questioning if singing was the real me."

Joudeh stayed with singing but also started dancing in his room, naked behind his locked door, moving in harmony with the sound of music to express his loneliness. When, at age 14, he lost his voice during puberty, his dream as a singer went out the door. He began attending formal dance classes in secret.

As Joudeh prepared for his usual classes in the morning, no one in the camp knew where he would go. He lied, saying that he performed Dabka, an Arab folk dance traditional to the Levant countries. When his father found out the truth, he beat him with a wooden baton.

"It is very shameful in our society to say your son is a dancer, especially the eldest child. If I was not going to be a famous singer, he wanted me to study something more socially acceptable, like medicine or English literature," Joudeh said. "I didn't know who I was. It was awful for me. I grew depressed for two years and began cutting myself in my room. If I could not be myself and dance, I wanted to die."

Joudeh was supported in his dancing by his mother, but beaten by his father

Fortunately for Joudeh, his mother supported his dancing aspirations. She divorced her violent husband and encouraged Joudeh to attend the main dance theatre in Syria, Enana Dance. Joudeh also began studying dance at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus. 

In 2014 came Joudeh's opportunity to shine: he was called to the Arab version of So You Think You Can Dance in Lebanon. After reaching the semi-finals, he was told that he could not win because he was "devoid of nationality" as a Palestinian. But despite the unfairness, he had built a loyal fanbase, reaching thousands of viewers across the region and around the globe.

His hard work would eventually pay off.

Dancing through the shelling

Upon his return from Lebanon, as escalating tensions between Syrian opposition and government forces violently transferred into Yarmouk camp. Joudeh began losing all around him. His memories, childhood photos, his family home - even his clothes were left in the rubble of Yarmouk Camp.

He watched as his brother was gripped by mental illness and five of his family members were killed - either in jail or on the streets. "They took bullets while walking from one place to another, and it was goodbye, just like that."

With no studio to dance, he continued on the rooftops of his grandparents' flat in the early hours of the morning.

When his mother left the city, he refused to follow her. He needed to complete his dance exams "and continue giving classes to the children," he said.

Even after receiving death threats from the Islamic State group, Joudeh persevered, tattooing on his neck the provocative words "Dance or Die".

"Look where my tattoo is, it's where they cut your head," he explained with a wry smile. "In Hinduism, there is an ecstatic God of dance, so if Islamic extremists want to talk about Allah and say that I am breaking their religion, then there is a special God for me."

Watch Ahmad Joudeh dance in part one of
Roozbeh Kaboly's documentary [Nieuwsuur]

In the summer of 2016 Roozbeh Kaboly, from the Dutch news programme Nieuwsuur, found Joudeh on Facebook from his performances on So You Think You Can Dance and made a 15-minute documentary about his life called Dance or Die.

The documentary opened up opportunities for Joudeh, as he received dozens of invitations to perform and study at institutions and with companies around the world.

Joudeh ultimately settled on his dream in Amsterdam when Ted Brandsen, the artistic director of Dutch National Ballet, set up a Dance for Peace fund to bring Joudeh to the Netherlands. The fund also aspires to bring other Syrian dancers and choreographers to the Netherlands in the future.

Dancing for Syria

Perhaps the biggest paradox of Joudeh's life is that, despite his lack of citizenship in its legal sense, he says he feels more Syrian than Syrians with nationality. Why? "Because first my mother is from Palmyra, the history of Syria, which makes me so proud to be her son. Second, I did all I could for my country even if it's not officially my country," Joudeh explained proudly.

In his free time, Joudeh used to empower children to accept themselves by dance, as he accepted himself.

His message is simple; not only does it shatter the conservative notion that men cannot be dancers, but it also breaks the helpless face of refugee en masse. "The world looks at us refugees as people without abilities - but we can also be artists and dancers. We can be educated; we can be open-minded; do not put us in a frame."

'People do not realise how mucky they have it here,' says Joudeh, a Palestinian refugee from war-torn Syria

While some reside in Amsterdam for the unlimited freedom for which the city of sin is best known: partying, drugs, and debauchery of the like, Joudeh asserts he has a responsibility to his country, as well as to his family, students, and his people - the myriad stateless Palestinians of the world.

"People do not realise how lucky they have it here," he explained. He maintains ocasional relations with other Syrians in the city but has few friends outside the ballet, dancing some days from 9:30am until 11:00pm with a tough regimen of rehearsals. 

"I feel like I am the voice of those artists who are still in Damascus dreaming of freedom," he said. "As my friends and family back home tell me, the only good news is my news. So it forces me to work more and more and more."

Joudeh is currently playing a small role in Coppelia and will be performing in Sleeping Beauty in December.

In the long-term, he hopes to perform a world tour, inspiring youth through his slogan: "Dance or Die." Most of all, he dreams to eventually return home and create the Syrian National Ballet. He is receiving all the training he needs do to so; the only question is when.

AJ Naddaff is an Arab Studies and Political Science major, a French Teacher and Research Assistant for the Arab Studies Chair at Davidson College. 

His current book project documents Syrian artists in diaspora and their intellectual response to various crises.

Follow him on Twitter: @ajnaddaff