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How one man’s pause became a haunting symbol of Aleppo’s destruction

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 15/03/2017 Avi Selk
Mohammed Mohiedin Anis, 70, smokes his pipe as he sits in his destroyed bedroom listening to music in Aleppo. © Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images Mohammed Mohiedin Anis, 70, smokes his pipe as he sits in his destroyed bedroom listening to music in Aleppo.

It was a picture perfectly framed by a war: a 70-year-old man in socks and sandals, smoking a pipe beside an old record player, in the gray-dusted ruins of his bedroom in Aleppo.

The world has followed Syria's long civil war through viral images. Its horrors were chronicled on Twitter by a 7-year-old girl. Its politics were humanized in a little boy's letter, read aloud on the White House's YouTube channel.

Even so, after six years of bombings and atrocities and dead children, rebel surges and army advances, a single still frame of an old man on a bed stirred something deep in many people, many thousands of miles away.

“A moment of tranquility amongst Hell on earth,” someone wrote on Instagram, where Agence France-Presse posted the photo Friday.

“A novel in one shot,” The Washington Post's Ishaan Tharoor tweeted three days later.

Thousands have shared and seen it since then — from Reddit to the Guardian and back to Instagram, where someone asked: “Did anyone talk with this man? Where's his story?”

Well there's always 1,000 words.

The man on the bed is Mohammed Mohiedin Anis — better known as “Abu Omar” in the city where he made a fine life for himself before photographer Joseph Eid found him living in destitution last week.

“He was a wealthy man,” Eid told The Post. “He speaks five languages. He studied medicine, went to Italy and had a lipstick enterprise.”

Eid knows what war can do to a life. At age 41, he has photographed the war in Iraq, the ouster of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya, and all six years of Syria's horror.

He was on another assignment when his employer, Agence France-Presse, sent another team to Aleppo a year ago to meet Anis.

That was during his neighborhood's long occupation by rebel forces. Anis's two wives and eight children had left Aleppo, but he remained in the home where his ancestors were buried, putting up with sporadic bombs.

He wore a feather in his overcoat in January 2016, and showed off his dwindling collection of vintage American cars, with which he was obsessed.

“When one of my cars is shelled, it's like I or one of my relatives has been hit,” Anis told AFP.

Several months later, after government warplanes demolished his neighborhood to retake it, “residents somehow convinced rebels not to mount a Dushka antiaircraft gun on his 1958 Chevrolet,” AFP reported.

Last week, with Aleppo back in the hands of the government, the agency sent Eid and a reporter to see what became of Anis and his cars.

Neighbors directed them from street to street, Eid recalled, and finally to the nearly 90-year-old, two-story house.

“Amid the rubble, we saw his cars destroyed and his house partially collapsed,” Eid said. “And a big, huge, green gate. We knocked on it.”

Their assignment looked doomed. The house look uninhabitable. But Anis answered the door.

He made tea for the journalists the next morning and gave them a tour of all the things he'd lost.

Only a few cars remained. A collapsing wall had crushed his 1955 Buick Super. “Look, she is crying,” Anis said, pointing to a twisted grille.

“We saw all the antiques and all the collections, and all that he had,” Eid recalled. “He said: 'Nothing will stop me from rebuilding, from living again. It's here I was born, and here I will die.' "

It was then, Eid said, that he realized that “it's not a matter about cars anymore. It's about an old man and his will to live.”

They asked Anis where he slept.

Mohammad Mohiedine Anis, 70, opens the trunk of his 1949 Hudson Commodore outside his home in Aleppo's formerly rebel-held al-Shaar neighborhood on March 9. © Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images Mohammad Mohiedine Anis, 70, opens the trunk of his 1949 Hudson Commodore outside his home in Aleppo's formerly rebel-held al-Shaar neighborhood on March 9.

Anis had fled Aleppo for a few weeks, during the worst of the government's bombing, and had only just returned. Rubble still littered the bedroom. The windows had collapsed in on themselves, and air from the destroyed city mingled with dust in the room.

Anis sat down on his bed.

“He told us he likes classical music,” Eid said. Skeptically, the videographer asked whether Anis's phonograph still worked.

" 'Yes, of course. I will show you. Wait! I cannot listen to music before lighting my pipe.' "

Like everything in that place, the pipe was broken, Eid said. Anis had repaired it with Scotch tape. So he lit it up and cranked a handle, and music filled the gutted home.

Eid describes himself as a careful, conservative photographer. “I don't push the shutter without knowing I'm taking a picture that moves me from inside,” he said.

So for a while, he stood and watched and listened.

“This man is sitting in here, in his bedroom where he's still sleeping, without windows, without a door. The wall is going to collapse I don't know when. And he's listening to music. He's smoking his pipe.”

Eid pushed the shutter.

Then he finished the assignment and said goodbye to Anis, who has no phone, and whom he has not spoken to since.

Eid went off to other parts of Syria, to other ruins. And then this week, home to his family in Lebanon.

The photo was just a photo then, but it lingered in his mind. Eid would find himself thinking sadly about it in traffic, remembering the old man.

Eid has created many haunting images. Some — like before-and-after shots of an Islamic State conquest, have gone viral, he said.

He wasn't expecting Anis's photo to do the same. But he wasn't astonished when it did.

“I think people got bored from the violence. From the war,” Eid said. “They turned their head when they turned on any news of killings. … This image, I think, it speaks to the situation of the human being.”

The photographer searched a moment for words.

“And gives also a hope,” he said. “Okay. We had the destruction. Now it's time to let the music play.”

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