Dance Or Die: From Stateless Refugee To International Ballet Star by Ahmad Joudeh

I love dance books, and often find them a source of luminous prose and inspiration. Couple this with the true story of a stateless ballet dancer who grew up and performed in war-torn Syria, and who is active in dancing and advocating for peace and for the rights of refugees worldwide, and I absolutely had to read this memoir.

On those two subjects — the joy and power of dance, and the plight of those displaced by war — Dance Or Die succeeds tremendously. Ahmad Joudeh is at his most eloquent when describing his need to dance, how it compels him and how it makes him feel, how it serves as a refuge from all the ugliness going on around him. His prose is so lovely, it made me want to get up out of my seat and flex my own muscles and training. His writing is also evocative for its simplicity, in contrast, in stating the plight of his family, made stateless first by the annexation of Palestine, then by chauvinist citizenship laws in Syria. The absolute injustice that subjects people born without the correct set of papers to lives of fear and deprivation is a shocking scandal globally, and part of why I’m so firmly for open borders.

Alas then that this book is so infuriatingly vague on so many other subjects. The narrative is in strict keeping with the official story, tho even then, I felt like I gleaned more insight into what he’s really like by watching his So You Think You Can Dance Arabia video clips than I did here. The tone when discussing why his dad was so against him dancing, to the conflict in Syria, to the challenges he faced when competing on SYTYCD, all affected an “I’m too above this to explain” demeanor that really did a disservice to his story. Is it homophobia that causes the physical violence and death threats against his person? When he rebels against religion, is he saying “fuck you” to fundamentalists or to Islam as a whole? When he complains about facing racism from his fellow competitors, who are also primarily Arab, what exactly does this mean? Why is there not even the most rudimentary explanation of why war is tearing apart Syria?

Look, I’m not expecting a treatise on politics and culture in the Middle East here, but some scene setting would have been extremely helpful in understanding why people behaved the way they did around him, and what his personal feelings were besides “how does this affect my ability to dance?” It’s a bizarre assumption that readers would automatically understand the context, and frankly promotes the bigoted “Arabs/Muslims are just too messy to understand” tropes. In someone from a background of greater privilege, this would have come across as hopelessly self-absorbed; as it is, Dance Or Die feels like it was written by someone so shell-shocked that they automatically shy away from exploring any conflict. Which is valid! All his opinions are valid, even the ones I disagree with! Like, I get why he urges immigrants to integrate, but there IS a difference between a melting pot and a salad bowl, and while the former might prove easier to digest, the latter is far healthier. But his lack of engagement with the issues, even if it’s a self-protecting thing and a totally understandable defense mechanism, makes for writing that is less interesting than annoyingly fuzzy.

I so admire his courage as a dancer and performer, but I wish some of that had translated to his prose. Perhaps it’s too much to ask for, at least at this point in time. While this is an important story, with some really great writing on dance and, in one of my favorite bits, a reflection on how the opposite of war isn’t peace but creation, it’s a memoir that lacks more than the usual level of critical self-reflection. Perhaps in another twenty or thirty years, he’ll have had the life experience to be able to look back and really evaluate what’s made him who he is. As it is, this book, published originally in the Italian when he was 28, works great as advocacy for the power of art and the plight of the stateless, but falls far short of where it needs to be as a satisfying, much less successful, memoir.

Dance Or Die by Ahmad Joudeh was published September 21 2021 by Charlesbridge Publishing and is available from all good booksellers, including

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