Lebanese photographer who took iconic civil war image searches for the man who saved his life

By  Adam Harvey, ABC Middle East correspondent

A black and white photograph of a man with a rifle slung over his shoulder playing the piano
PHOTO: In 1983, photographer Ramzi Haidar took this photo of a militiaman playing the piano in an abandoned mansion. (Supplied: Ramzi Haidar)

Photographer Ramzi Haidar has been searching for the Piano Man for more than 30 years.

Key points:

  • Lebanon’s civil war was fought from 1975 to 1990, and claimed 120,000 lives
  • Ramzi Haidar was a young photographer during the conflict
  • He is still trying to find the subject of his most famous photograph from 1983

He is the subject of Haidar’s most famous image — a moment of serenity for a young combatant in Lebanon’s bitter civil war.

But that is not the only reason Haidar wants to find him.

He is seeking the Piano Man because of what happened in the moments after the photograph was taken.

Haidar was shot in the head and nearly died.

“I’ve been searching for him for decades now,” Haidar said.

The image is part of a new exhibition of civil war photographs in Beirut, a rare event in a city that generally tries to forget its blood-soaked history.

Haidar took the photograph in September 1983, during the so-called ‘mountain war’ phase of the Lebanese conflict, as sectarian militias fought for the heights above Beirut.

It was a particularly chaotic phase of the 15-year war as the fighters battled for territory abandoned by Israel’s invading army, which had recently pulled out of Beirut.

The village of Souk el Gharb was a key strategic point overlooking Beirut that was contested by Druze and Christian militias.

During the house-to-house fighting in 1983, Haidar followed a group of Christian fighters into a recently abandoned mansion.

There, among the ornate furniture and battle debris, Haidar saw the Piano Man.

“I was surprised because his friends were fighting and clashes were all over the place. He didn’t care and was playing the piano. I was a bit surprised by his attitude as if he didn’t care,” he said.

‘I took a picture … then I got shot’

A man stands in front of an old camera
PHOTO: Lebanese photographer Ramzi Haidar has spent decades searching for the piano-playing militiaman who saved his life. (ABC News: Tom Hancock )

The image is rich with contrasts: the serene fighter with stylish hair and denim outfit at the piano in a warzone.

He is pushing the pedals with his decidedly un-combat shoes, one Kalashnikov over his shoulder and another resting on the imported French piano, surrounded by the extravagant furniture of an opulent home that is already scarred by war.

Haidar was aged 24 when he took the image — about the same age as the Piano Man himself.

With the image safely in his camera, Haidar walked out of the house and was shot in the head.

“I took a picture … what happened next is I got shot. It felt like a sudden shock. It was a bit like in movies when a man gets hit by a bullet. I saw, like in a film, my whole life running past,” he said.

As Haidar lay injured, he imagined his mother’s grief if he died.

“The most painful part was to see my mother in our village in the south, Jouwaya, that was occupied back then by Israel, she was mourning my death and all the people I knew from the village were surrounding her,” he said.

The Christian fighters from the mansion scrambled to save Haidar.

Haidar never learned Piano Man’s name, but he has not given up the search.

“I’ve asked the former militiamen he was fighting with but they’ve lost track of him. He has travelled abroad. I know that he’s still alive,” he said.

“If ever I find him, I don’t know what I will tell him. It’s confusing.”

Photographers urge people not to forget horrors of war

Haidar’s Piano Man photograph is one of 30 images of Lebanon’s civil war being exhibited at Beirut’s Dar al Mussawir gallery.

It is an important exhibition, according to photographer Marwan Naamani, who also has an image on display.

“We are surrounded by countries who have deadly wars now — Syria, Iraq, everywhere. We are living in a place where a personal fistfight might lead to a huge civil war again,” he said.

The photographers hope their exhibition will remind people of the horrors of the civil conflict, which claimed 120,000 lives.

“What we need to say is that ‘this war was bad, come and see what happened,'” Naamani said.

Naamani also survived being shot in the neck during the war.

“Every picture represents a dramatic moment of the war: car bombs, displaced people, militiamen. This all happened during the civil war,” he said.

“We need people to come and see that this might happen again. We don’t want it to happen.”

ABC