“My art is to help those people who are trying to be something in life. We all have something to tell, to be whatever, you just need to find yourself and go for it.”
Ahmad Joudeh has the words “dance or die” tattooed in Sanskrit on the back of his neck. This is not a fashion statement: it was put right where his head would be cut off if he ISIS ever fulfilled their threat to him.
“If they wanted to cut my head I want them to see this as the last thing they can see of me” he explained his choice.
As you’d imagine, ballet is not exactly approved by the Islam extremists – they told him it was punishable by death.
But Ahmad didn’t give in.
“They don’t have any culture, they just come out from nowhere to break our history. They believe art goes against the mind, which is not Islamic at all. Centuries ago, they’d have done this because they were stupid people. I’m fighting for my country in culture.”
So he stayed despite losing his home to the war, having no studio to dance in, even after his mother left. He stayed and taught children who experienced the same escape in dance he did.
“I will never give up dancing. I am prepared to fight all my life for the feeling that dancing gives me. It’s a feeling of freedom. Being a Palestinian refugee, born in a camp, I always felt inferior to other people. But when I dance, I feel like a king.”
He grew strong in his circumstances. His family lived in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk, Syria, and from an early age he wanted to dance but it wasn’t an option.
“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 (his father) wanted me to study something more socially acceptable, like medicine or English literature.”
Thankfully Ahmad had his mother who supported his ambitions. He danced on, appeared on the Arab edition of ‘So You Think You Can Dance’, wanted to reach the world via YouTube.
“I stayed dancing because it’s my life not their life.”
That is how journalist Roozbeh Kaboly discovered Joudeh and created a short film about his life, “Dance or Die”.
In it, Ahmad danced in Palmyra, his mother’s native city, in the Roman theatre that was used by Isis for mass executions more than once.
“It was like building it again. I was holding all the energy around me to build it and let them know that this theatre isn’t for killing people, it is for art.”
It was this documentary that caught the attention of Ted Brandsen, the artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet. He set up a fund for Ahmad and invited him to Amsterdam.
“I was impressed by his sheer willpower to go on dancing, in spite of everything. When at the end of the documentary he said he would be called up for military service, I knew I had to do something.”
The fund allowed Ahmad to leave Syria. Life in Amsterdam is a big change.
“I enjoy every single detail. In Syria, people are just surviving, not living. This is really different from seeing destruction. Look at the doves, they don’t even fly; they know people won’t hurt them. Everything’s safe here.”
Being safe is not Ahmad’s final goal. One thing he’d like to show to the world is to open their hearts to refugees.
“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.”
Even more importantly, he chose dance as a way to fight against violence, prejudice, racism and war.
“The good way to fight is art.
It’s dance, it’s music, it’s paintings.
This is the good way of fighting – not weapons.”
One day, he will go back to Syria to create the National Ballet to prove everyone that culture prevails.
You can support Ahmad’s inspiring message through the Dance For Peace fund and sharing his story on social media. I’d like to acknowledge the two other people who made it possible for him to spread this positive message: Roozbeh Kaboly, the journalist and Ted Brandsen, the art director. If they hadn’t taken action like they did, this story would have a very different end. Give them a shoutout, please.
For more positive stories like this, check out the “We Are The World” blog series, hosted by Simon Falk, Roshan Radhakrishnan, Inderpreet Uppal, Damyanti Biswas and Sylvia Stein this month. We bring inspirational examples from all around the world about people who go out of their way to give chances, to make life better. Do join if you can – this world needs more light.
Featured image is all rights reserved to Francois Guillot, Getty Images.