Portrait of My Father
Granta 104: ‘Fathers’ includes recollections of their fathers by nine writers. For Granta.com, we have invited new writers to reflect upon a picture of their father. The third in our series is by the novelist and painter Rabih Alameddine.
I come from a family that hangs pictures of family on its walls. In my lemon-coloured dining room hangs a set of three professional portraits of my father, repeat, repeat, repeat, different angles, artificially lit, blue suit, coiffed and dapper, handsome, in his prime, old but not decrepit, probably the age I am now. Those are the pictures I hang — those are the pictures that were taken expressly for us, his family, to hang.
Decorative, like furniture.
The picture on my mantelpiece, the one I look at, is a simply framed 4×6 in which my father registers a little under an inch and a half. His face barely registers; my memory refills the details.
I no longer can tell how old the picture is. My memory continues to fail me. There is a date stamped on it, but the numbers don’t seem to make sense: thirty and eight and twenty. It does not look like any numbers have been erased or elided.
The first two could make sense. August 30 could have been the date, could have. It was hot that day, unreasonably so, even for Lebanon in August. I remember that.
Twenty? I don’t think so. He died in early 2003. I remember him angry with me on that trip, that day the picture was taken. Angry maybe because I wore shorts, and I was a man, and men don’t wear shorts. He was always angry with me, or at least concerned, until he went on antidepressants about five years before he died, after which, he wasn’t always angry with me, not always. Twenty would not make sense, no.
The picture was taken during an outing of family and friends — picnic, barbecue, swimming, gossip, my father sneaking behind trees and shrubs for a cigarette. He is old in the picture. You might not be able to tell from the tiny face, but the way he is standing is a dead giveaway.
Maybe my mother took the picture, maybe one of my sisters.
The picnic was in the Shouf mountains, near a Druze village called Jahiliya (means the dark ages, the time before enlightenment, before the Prophet). In a small valley, a dell, surrounded by a number of mountain peaks, springs rush down flumes to a couple of ponds in the basin. Atypical microclimate. Not the greens of pine, of holm or kermes oaks, not the green of Lebanese cedars. My father, all inch and a half of him, is lost in a green of ferns, of beeches and birch, of moist moss.
The rocks were slick. The water was freezing. I remember that.