“DANCE OR DIE, FOR ME THERE IS NO OTHER CHOICE”.
Text: Paul Hofman
Foto: Remon van den Kommer
Video: Paradox Productions
Ballet dancer and choreographer Ahmad Joudeh: ‘Dance or Die.’
Ahmad Joudeh (32) is undoubtedly the ambassador with the most touching and at the same time most inspiring life story this year. The ambassadorship of Pride 2022 means a lot to him: ‘I want to be the voice of refugees. And a figurehead for them in the countries where I perform’. We speak to him between rehearsals for his dance performance at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland. He is visibly tired but when we talk about Pride 2022 his eyes light up.
Ahmad was born in a refugee camp in Syria. His mother was Syrian and his father Palestinian. Together with his sister and brother, he grew up in the camp where the family tried to survive. Like them, he is stateless. In the camp, I was bullied as a child but I learned to stand up for myself from an early age. There were so many street fights. I literally fought to survive. Ahmad is stateless and gay, which means he is not seen as a full-fledged Syrian citizen. ‘I was put in a corner.’
Love for dance
He was barely eight when he discovered that moving and dancing meant everything to him. His father didn’t like it and forbade him to dance. But Ahmad keeps dancing no matter what. I followed my heart. Movement is my life. Dance is my breath of life. Nothing could and can stop me. His father beat and wounded him once so badly that Ahmad could not dance for a while. But nothing and nobody can take away his love for dance.
A Dutch documentary maker sees him perform in Syria in 2016. The civil war in the country is at its fiercest. ‘When I dance I feel free. Syria is my country.’ Ahmad is still often in touch with his family who have remained in Syria. He bats his eyes. I am very worried about them. The famine is huge and the people are so poor. There is just not enough food. You can’t imagine what it’s like for people who have lost everything: their children and their homes. The rockets, mortar shells, attacks, the horrific violence, he experienced it all. Horrible. How did he end up in the Netherlands? National ballets all over the world, from Australia to the United States, asked him to become a dancer. I knew nothing about these countries.
That he ends up in the Netherlands is a stroke of luck. Thanks to the tenacity of the National Ballet’s director Ted Brandsen, he came to the Netherlands. ‘He called me every day.’
‘Even though I knew nothing about the Netherlands, I chose to come here.’ It changed his life completely. That five-hour flight is etched on my mind. Everything changed. Here the unimaginable became reality. ‘I am free.’ He has a strong feeling of being in a film.
In Syria, he notices that he likes boys. He kept it to himself. Not for a moment did I think about coming out of the closet. Homosexuality is punishable by death. Although the Syrian government no longer applies it, the terrorist organisation IS does. Coming out as gay means death. According to them, homosexuality is impure and reprehensible. In my opinion, you are not less of a man if you love a man. This is the life I want to live. Not otherwise.’
Ahmad was 23 when he decided to have a tattoo with his life motto Dance or Die on the back of his neck, the place where the knife would hit him in case of execution. For Ahmad Joudeh, dancing equals existence. Stopping dancing is not an option for him.
In the Netherlands, he discovered what freedom is. Here I could finally be myself. I remember the first Gay Pride boat parade I ever saw as if it was yesterday. It was in 2018. I cried so much when I saw the pink police boat. Wow. That you are so protected and can be yourself. Unbelievable. Ahmad had never thought he would go on the boat himself. After five years in the Netherlands I dare to. I sail with the UNHCR boat (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). For some time now, I have also been one of the faces of this refugee organisation. Just like he is for SOS Kinderdorpen. ‘I’ll take all time needed for an ambassadorship’. Last year Ahmad received his Dutch passport.
His first reaction when he heard he would be an ambassador was one of speechlessness. The first thing that came to my mind was how much the Netherlands appreciates me. A very special feeling. I am extremely grateful to be able to fulfil this role as ambassador. For Ahmad it is a big step that fills him with pride. Ahmad sees with his own eyes that there is still discrimination within the LHBT-community. This pigeonholing by being divided into groups must stop.
It will be his message to stress the importance of living in safety and peace protected by the government. And he adds: ‘And that regardless of your nationality, religion or gender. I want to be an role model for people, there is nothing wrong with being totally yourself. Live your life the way you want and love whoever you choose. He has kept the week of Pride Amsterdam 2022 free in his agenda. Where I can support people I will do so. And I am looking forward to being an ambassador. Life smiles at him. His talent, charisma and enthusiasm make him the ideal Pride ambassador. Ahmad keeps dancing to the music of freedom. Stopping is and will not be an option for him. ‘I am proud of who I am and how I live.’
Pride ambassador since 2022