Ahmad Joudeh, an internationally renowned ballet dancer, was a stateless refugee growing up in the Al-Yarmouk camp in Syria. Despite the dangers of the civil war and death threats from religious extremists, Joudeh was determined to become a dancer, which he did, first with the one of Syria’s top dance companies and later in Amsterdam with the Dutch National Ballet.
His memoir, Dance or Die, tells this remarkable story—looking back on his childhood in the Al-Yarmouk camp and following his journey to Europe—and has been called “heart-breaking and life-affirming in equal measure.”
The Millions caught up with Joudeh to talk about the book, his journey from a refugee camp to the stage, and what he’s working on now.
The Millions: Can you tell readers about your experience in in the Al-Yarmouk camp in Syria: how you ended up there and what life was like?
Ahmad Joudeh: Both my father’s father and my father’s mother were born and raised in Palestine. They were children when the conflict broke out there in 1948. Their families escaped from the battles and ended up as refugees in Syria, where they later met each other. My grandparents got settled and raised a family in Al-Yarmouk, a refugee camp in Damascus, where I was born and grew up. The social atmosphere was harsh there, but I had an amazing childhood being loved by all my family members. I wrote about my exciting days as a child there in the book.
TM: Certain organizations and groups threatened to kill you if you danced or taught others to dance. Can you talk about the forces working against your dancing: why it was forbidden and how this was enforced?
AJ: In the culture of my neighborhood, it was not acceptable that a man should be a dancer. As my father did not approve that I should be a dancer, we had serious conflicts, which are described in my book.
When the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, religiously fanatic extremists came into the country. They started targeting me, as I was a dancer and as I was teaching dance to children. In their thinking, I was leading the children to a wrong direction.
TM: Can you talk a little about the tattoo on you neck: when you got it and why?
AJ: The tattoo “Dance or Die” was my response to the threats by the extremists. Giving up dance was a not an option for me. I got the tattoo on the back of my neck, where the sward would fall in case of decapitation, to ensure that they would see it just before killing me. I chose to have it in the Indian language to pay respect to Shiva, the dancing God.
TM: How did you, in the end, manage to dance?
AJ: My mother supported my pursuit of my dream all the way through. When I was 16 years old, I joined Enana Dance Theater, the major dance company in Syria at that time. I also studied dance at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts.
TM: As a kid in the Al-Yarmouk camp, did dancing, in a way, save your life?
AJ: When I was eight years old, I saw ballet for the first time in my life. It was a group of girls dancing to a music from Swan Lake at a school event. The moment I saw them dancing, I started moving my body with them and felt a beautiful feeling. This life defining experience is described in my book.
I wanted to have that feeling all the time. Dancing alone in secret in my room gave me a peace and grace.
TM: How did you manage to get to Europe?
AJ: In 2014, I participated in the Arab version of So You Think You Can Dance, which took place in Beirut. The videos were uploaded to the social media. Roozbeh Kaboly, a Dutch journalist, found me through the social media. He wanted to make a reportage of my life in Damascus. I refused first because it would be too dangerous for him to come to Damascus. But he insisted, as he was a war correspondent. We worked together, and the reportage was broadcasted in the Dutch national television in August 2016. Touched by the reportage, the Dutch National Ballet organized a “Dance for Peace Fund” and invited me to The Netherlands. I moved to Amsterdam in October 2016.
TM: Your story is both very personal and, at the same time, universal. Can you talk a bit about displaced people and refugees in general?
AJ: I know, from the stories of my family, both in the earlier and the current generations, and myself, what it is like to lose the home due to a conflict, to move to another country with another culture, to try to establish a new life in a society where you are regarded as a stranger classified as a “refugee” and/or “stateless.”
We are all human beings and have the right to be treated with respect and to be successful.
I should like to serve as a voice of millions of “refugees” and the “stateless,” who are mostly voiceless, through my activities as an artist. I want to be a living encouragement for them that there is a hope and that they should believe in themselves. I also want to draw the attention of the world to the struggles of the refugees and the stateless people.
TM: How did the book come about?
AJ: As I wrote in the book, Mr. Roberto Bolle, the principal dancer of Teatro ala Scala in Milan, Italy, has been my idol. By a pure coincidence, I could meet him at the Dutch National Ballet right after my arrival in Amsterdam in 2016.
Mr. Bolle was kind enough to invite me to dance with him in his first new year ballet television program “Roberto Bolle Danza Con Me” on Jan. 1, 2018, on Rai 1, the Italian national tv. We danced together to “Inshallah,” played live by Sting. Apparently, this performance had an impact on the Italian audience. An Italian publisher, DeA Planeta Libri, offered an opportunity to publish my memoir. At that time, there had been a lot of interview articles about me. But I wanted to tell my life in my words in my way, so I accepted the offer. The Italian version Danza O Muori was published in November 2018. Mr. Bolle was kind enough to write the preface.
TM: What was the biggest challenge you faced as a writer?
AJ: Since I was child, I loved describing things in words. I started writing when I was 16. I loved to write poetry in Sufi style. Already before the offer by DeA Planeta Libri, I had started writing about my life, some parts in Arabic and others in English. I collected all my writing and had a good collaboration with the Italian editor. But, as we had a limited time available, the process was hectic.
I am happy that Imagine has offered to publish it in English.
For the preparation of this version, we had good time available. I went through all the texts once again. I could take an “advantage” of the free time imposed by the lockdown under the pandemic of Covid-19. I had a good collaboration with Kevin Stevens, the editorial director. With his encouragement, I added some important details to this edition. Going through my past once again was hard emotionally, but after all, it was a good process opening my eyes to see the world from different angles. It also helped me to work on the culture shock that I had been experiencing without realizing and to understand the process of my integration into Europe.
TM: Will there be another book? What are you working on now?
AJ: I should like to establish a choreography method that combines classic ballet and Arabic tradition. It is my dream to write a book of a new method of choreography.
TM: Tell us a bit about your current work fighting for human rights of children and refugees?
AJ: When I was Syria, I held dance workshops for children with Down syndrome, and for the children orphaned in the civil war living at SOS Children’s Villages in Syria. I tried to let them feel like artists. When you are creating, you can live in a world in which you can exist in a different way, however your situation is. I could see that their souls were having good experiences. I saw that the orphaned children became better at coping with their situation. This experience was repeated, after my moving to Europe, when I had an opportunity to have a workshop with children at SOS Children’s Villages in Italy in 2018. In 2019, I was appointed as an International Friend for SOS Children’s Villages International. Unfortunately, the pandemic has prevented me from working fully. I do hope that I can soon make further contributions for SOS Children’s Villages.
I have been also involved in events for raising awareness for refugee issues. In 2018, I performed at U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Nansen Refugee Award Ceremony. I hope to be able to make further contributions to UNHCR.
TM: Do you have a message for children in camps like Al-Yarmouk right now?