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Audrey and Hannibal

[ personal history ] by Anita Alkhas

Besides his unfinished portrait of me, I don't have any of our father's oil paintings. But I do have the only one of our mother Audrey's that made it through dozens of moves, crossing the ocean at least four times. My sister Adrianne gave it to me and it is worth a lifetime of birthday gifts. Written on the back of the canvas is the name of a classroom at the Art Institute of Chicago (where my parents met in the mid-1950s), so it must have been painted as an assignment. Instead of a proper frame, it has four pieces of wood, one nailed to each side. The best kind of frame for an oil painting, according to Hannibal. I imagine he fashioned the frame for her, an early gesture of courtship.

Hannibal's parents sent him to Chicago to become a doctor like his maternal grandfather, who had gotten his degree in the U.S. There was a small, established Assyrian community there, including Hannibal's aunt Nelly, to help him settle in. She says he was a quick study -- like herself, in fact. Perhaps they were able to adjust so well to a new language and culture because they were already bilingual in Farsi and Modern Syriac and had grown up as minorities in Iran. Of course, Hannibal also had drive -- he soon dropped out of Loyola University and enrolled at the Art Institute, his personal ambitions overriding his obedience to his parents.

Audrey, a native Chicagoan and her parents' only surviving child, was getting her degree in art education. They were somewhat reassured that their unpredictable, artsy daughter had chosen a profession with at least a measure of practicality. But they didn't expect her to up and marry a foreigner and then move halfway across the world. As Ann, her best friend growing up, told me recently, it was always an adventure when you were with Audrey.

I like to sit and look at her painting. It's deceptively simple, depicting the fa├žade of a Chicago row house, in deep red and black. Its geometric shapes -- rectangles, triangles, squares, arches, and a strip of black (sky?) across the top -- give it an abstract feel. I find it exciting and mysterious, yet familiar. It has the same red that dominated Hannibal's paintings for many years, all the way through the 1970s. She clearly had a strong influence on the development of his style; her contribution was even officially noted in an article on Hannibal's work by the writer and critic Jalal al-Ahmad. They were introduced to al-Ahmad and his wife, the writer Simin Daneshvar, by Hossein and Bettie Tavakoli, our close family friends since the 1950s. It was one of the first of their many encounters with Iranian intellectuals over the years.

After al-Ahmad's death, Hannibal painted a large canvas in tribute to him. It ran the length of the wall in the dining room of our house in Tehran, the first one we lived in after my sister was born. As I remember it, even though it had a sad subject, it was filled with bright colors, some straight from the tube: yellows, greens, blues, and occasional touches of deep crimson. Its different sections told many stories, and each time I looked at it, I would choose a corner to focus on and decode. I could never take it all in at the same time.

The house where it hung (on Heravi Street in the Saltanatabad district) was sprawling. It had been built as a summer residence, so it had no insulation. During the winter, we lived primarily in two rooms upstairs that we carpeted and heated by kerosene stoves. The rest of the year was another story. Our home always seemed to be filled with visitors (when we weren't out ourselves at other people's homes). It had an untended yard that stretched so far, you couldn't see the back wall. There was even a pool, but since it had no filtration system, the water was ice-cold for the first month of summer and then tadpoles would take it over. Audrey was never the "hostess with the mostest," as she put it, but she loved parties and had a laid-back, genuine acceptance of people that tended to disarm even the stiffer, stand-on-ceremony visitors who came. You might not get a decent estekan of tea, but you felt welcome all the same.

It occurs to me now that the al-Ahmad painting never hung in our subsequent homes. As inflation increased, the homes we lived in started to shrink, so there was no longer enough uninterrupted wall space for Hannibal's larger canvases. We lost our lease on the big house on Heravi when we went to the U.S. for our parents' sabbatical year (Audrey taught art at the Tehran American School and Hannibal was on the fine arts faculty at the University of Tehran). Upon our return, a generous friend let us live in his upstairs flat for little or no rent until we found an apartment we could afford. Our final family home was a basement, coincidentally on Heravi Street, a few blocks from our first. Although it was an actual basement, not a basement apartment, Audrey used her considerable talents to make it homey, inviting, and even aesthetically pleasing. My sister and I slept in what had been a storage room and our parents slept on the floor in the front room, along with the occasional visitor who decided to crash at our place, or sometimes our brother Buna when he was on leave from his Iranian military service. By proportion, or maybe even by actual numbers, the parties at the basement apartment seemed bigger (and wilder) than the parties we used to hold down the street.

I tell my students that each of us has a defining moment that splits our life into before and after. Mine is easy to pinpoint. Our parents' divorce and the Iranian Revolution happened the same year. When your parents divorce, you start trying to figure out just how far back things started to go wrong (I guess that's also true of a revolution). I used to think that it was a classic story of their upbringing kicking in harder as they aged, that their "irreconcilable differences" stemmed from clashing cultures rather than personalities. Were they doomed from the start? I wondered (I've always been rather over-dramatic, my family likes to tell me). But from what I've gleaned from old photos and letters, and the many stories friends and family have been offering up lately since our father's death last year, they seem to have had a surprisingly solid marriage for almost all of their 25 years together. Audrey had an unwavering belief in Hannibal's talent and the importance of his work and he trusted her exceptional eye and uncannily good taste in art. She was not ambitious herself and so never jealous of his success, nor even of his many female students and admirers. And, not least of all, they were both equally loving and fun-loving parents to the three of us.

Parents always loom large in the eyes of their children, but I think it's fair to say that Audrey and Hannibal often seemed larger than life, both individually and as a couple, to their many students, friends, and children of friends. I may be overstating the case, but I think they reflected a certain style of their time period and exerted a personal magnetism that was uncommon. They developed deep, long-lasting friendships and both of them later found fiercely loyal life partners. I don't know exactly what pressures broke them apart, but in the last year or so before the Revolution, I do know things had gotten a little out of hand, outside in the world and inside the marriage. Our life had become a bit too unstructured, even for Audrey. So she packed up and shipped off whatever belongings they agreed she could take, and left Iran with my sister and me.

Audrey's timing was eerily good, as it turned out. I like to think that she sensed we were arriving at the end of an era. Had she waited even a few months longer, she wouldn't have been able to take anything but memories with her. And that means I wouldn't have Audrey's painting in Hannibal's frame, their inviting home I can always enter, no matter what.

Via Tehran Bureau
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