'It’s dance or die': The ballet dancer forbidden to perform by Islamic State
Facing death threats, Ahmad Joudeh risked everything to keep his dream of dancing alive. Now the Palestinian dances for the Dutch National Ballet
Half a year ago, ballet dancer Ahmad Joudeh was giving dance lessons to orphaned children in war-torn Damascus. Now he has made his debut at the Dutch National Ballet and is studying at the ballet academy in Amsterdam. “It took me a month to fully realise I really am in Amsterdam, and I still can’t believe my luck,” Joudeh says.
For years, as the war raged around him and his family, Joudeh - a stateless Palestinian in Syria - had tried to make ends meet by teaching, and had received death threats from Islamic State. When the summons to do three years of military service arrived, the 26-year-old began to believe that this was going to be the end of the dream that he had cradled from childhood.
But his life changed radically in August 2016 when a Dutch TV journalist made a documentary about him. In front of the camera Joudeh danced on the rubble that once was the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk, where he had grown up. “I did it for the souls of my five family members who were killed there,’’ he says.
Soon afterwards he was filmed dancing in the ancient Roman theatre of Palmyra - the site, just a few months earlier, of mass executions by Isis. “Dancing in the Palmyra theatre was my way to fight Isis. It was my way to tell them: you can kill people, but you can’t keep me from dancing. It was a dangerous thing to do, we couldn’t stay there longer than one hour, and it was 50C (122F) in the sun. But I did it because I knew I would never have the chance again. And I was right. Isis have destroyed the theatre now. I cried for two days when I heard the news.”
When the documentary was aired on Dutch television, it attracted the attention of Ted Brandsen, the artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet. He decided on the spot to set up a fund called Dance for Peace to enable Joudeh to come to the Netherlands to dance and study.
Joudeh not only struggled to survive as a dancer during the Syrian war: he also fought a tough, private war to realise his dream. “My father forbid me to dance,” he says. “Because in our culture, to be a ballet dancer is the worst thing your son can choose to do for a living. He said it was a shame for the family and wanted me to study English or medicine. But I said no, this is my life. I went to dance class secretly. When he found out, he beat me with a wooden stick. He used to beat me really hard. Once he hurt my leg so badly, I couldn’t dance for days. But I never gave in. I said to him: it’s dance or die.”
He had these very words tattooed on his neck after he received death threats by Isis. “I will never give up dancing,” he says. “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.’’