Syrian Dancer Flying, Looking for Freedom (Landing in Amsterdam)


“He had something in his determination; a complete focus,” Mr. Brandsen said in a recent interview. “I thought: ‘There must be something we can do for this guy.’” The next day, Mr. Brandsen started a crowdfunding initiative to raise at least 25,000 euros, or nearly $30,000, to bring Mr. Joudeh to Amsterdam.

Within a few months, a visa, a residency permit, a program of study, housing and a plane ticket were all arranged. To Mr. Joudeh’s astonishment, he was soon saying goodbye to his mother, brother and sister in Damascus and leaving his homeland behind.

Now, less than a year since arriving in Europe, Mr. Joudeh has become a creative spokesman for peace in Syria, using dance as his platform. In July he danced in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, in a collaboration with the singer Sanga. He performed before 14,000 people in the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam, in a concert to raise money for refugees; and he has danced at refugee-related events and conferences in Italy, France, Spain and Norway.

Meanwhile, he made his debut with the Dutch National Ballet in Mr. Brandsen’s production of “Coppelia,” and in September he will perform a minor role in “Sleeping Beauty.”

His roles so far have been what Mr. Brandsen calls “character parts,” and he’s not likely to become a star in the company. “I was surprised by what he had been able to achieve with the patchiness of the training he had,” Mr. Brandsen said. “It’s a bit late for him to be a classical [ballet dancer] but that doesn’t mean he can’t be an artist, a dancer.”

Mr. Joudeh, who spoke with me at a cafe here near the ballet and opera, first encountered ballet when he was 8. He was singing in a school performance and the next act was a group of girls dancing. “I was moving with them from my seat,” he recalled, “and I went home I was trying to do the same movements. After that, I was dancing all the time, in the house, in the street, and if I heard any music anywhere.”

Photo

Mr. Joudeh with his mother in Palmyra, Syria, in a scene from Roozbeh Kaboly’s documentary “Dance or Die.”

Credit
Roozbeh Kaboly/Nieuwsuur

At 16, totally self-taught, he auditioned for the main Syrian ballet company, Enana Dance Theater in Damascus, and was accepted. There he was trained in ballet, gymnastics and modern dance, while also performing with the company, which relocated to Dubai in 2012. As he became more skilled he took on more solo roles, his teacher, Albina Belova, said, and he traveled extensively with the company in places including Qatar, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon.

“Ahmad first of all had very good potential, and he had the passion to dance, and he always put all his effort to study,” Ms. Belova said in a telephone interview from Dubai. “Our dance company use to work like a big family and he used to call me like a mama, because it showed how much he learned from us.”

In 2014, he was invited to be a contestant on the Arab version of the television show “So You Think You Can Dance.” “Bravo, bravo, bravo,” a judge said after his performance. “For a tall gentleman you’re using all your body, and you’re flying up in the air. Flying, looking for freedom.”

But as a rare male ballet dancer in Arab society, he was regularly vilified, even at home. His father subjected him to beatings so intense that they once broke his leg.

“It has nothing to do with religious beliefs,” Mr. Joudeh said. “Dance for men is just considered shameful. Dance is for girls, and for girls it’s also not considered polite.”

His mother divorced his father, and Mr. Joudeh and a friend set up a dance school in Yarmouk Camp; his mother managed the studio and Mr. Joudeh said he was happy there. “Before my house was destroyed, I had a great life,” he said. “I had my house, my studio with my friend, and we were teaching dance in the camp to hundreds of students.”

Mr. Kaboly found Mr. Joudeh later, when his only place to practice was on a Damascus rooftop; he was still teaching dance to orphans and to young people with Down syndrome at SOS Children’s Villages, which help children who have lost family in the war.

“When people think of Syria, they think of men with beards and guns in their hands,” Mr. Kaboly said in an interview. “But that’s not the Syria I saw as a reporter working there. I saw people who were trying to live their lives. I was looking to do a piece on the artists, athletes or people who were doing something different.”

He discovered Mr. Joudeh on a website and was attracted to his energy: “He was almost flying.”

The invitation to leave Syria came at a good time for Mr. Joudeh, who had been expected to join the Syrian Army in September 2016 for a mandatory service of three years. “I knew I would be killed because I’m not killing anybody,” he said. “If you want me to go to fight the real enemy, O.K., I go. But to fight my own people, I don’t want to be involved in this, even if they will kill me.”

Still, leaving Syria was wrenching, he said, because he had to leave behind his mother, brother and sister — and all his students. Since he’s been in the Netherlands, he struggles with coming to terms with what he now has, and how limited he is in his ability to help others back at home. “The only moments when I feel good,” he said, are “when my mind is busy with dancing. But when I’m in the house or biking or taking a shower, memories are always attacking my mind.”

He spends his free time with his roommates — an Italian and a Brazilian — who are also studying with the ballet and whom he considers “like brothers.” Back in Syria, his family has been attacked already a couple of times since he left — their home ransacked once and his brother’s car destroyed — and he is doing all he can to try to bring them to safety.

Soon after he arrived in Amsterdam, Mr. Joudeh got a second tattoo: the word “Free” in English on his left wrist, next to a picture of a dove, a symbol of peace. But when asked if he feels free now, he shakes his head. “You think, O.K., you reach your freedom but all your people are not free,” he said. “Then you are not free. I cannot got back and visit my family, and they cannot come here. Any time that I can see my mother I will feel free.”

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