The first thing I loved from the start about cartoonist/filmmaker Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future 2 is how much of a direct follow-up to the first volume it is. As I’m a stickler for accuracy, here’s the book’s full title: The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood of the Middle East, 1984 – 1985. Not only is the subtitle fuller, it’s also much more categorical as this is the middle-section of Sattouf’s planned series of illustrated memoirs, originally published in France as L’Arabe du futur.
To save both of us time and mental energy I’ll kindly refer you to my review of the original book right HERE, as much of my gripes, criticisms, and overall complaints about the current state of graphic novels remain in place. More importantly, of course, is that everything I loved about the book are also present in this sequel, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Also note, this isn’t that rare sequel that works independently on its own; reading through the first isn’t just recommended, but required. Consider this ‘obligation’ a net positive as you’d be missing out on one of last year’s best books.
Vol 2 picks up right where the first left off (once again featuring a fine translation by Sam Taylor), with the “beautiful” young Riad now a few years older, his “flowing blond hair like a Hollywood actress” and the voice of a little girl. In short, he was six years old and as gorgeous as ever. But, as with the first volume, Sattouf once again relegates young Riad to passenger as many of his recollections focus on his father, Abdel-Razek, now a doctor, who returns to his native Syria with his long-suffering (but often compliant) wife Clémentine, the beautiful French student he seduced away from the familiarity of her beloved France.
The inescapable fact that Abdel-Razek’s education is far from complete; his return to Syria is as much an attempt to reconnect with, perhaps even reinforce, his Arabian roots. Some might label him a pathetic character, worthy of our pity. In truth, he’s the embodiment of a new generation of Arabs yearning to help modernize their homeland while straddling the colliding worlds of Arab and the West.
If he’s guilty of anything, it’s the oversell of his Syria in transition as the equal to the modernity of the West. As he takes his young son to questionable markets to buy an outdated Betamax player and gas stove, to be delivered in a week (by camel, no less) he exclaims “You can get anything in Syria,” adding “It’s just like France here…”
Most harrowing is young Riad’s introduction to schooling; a frightening prospect for any young child, but even moreso when the actual ‘education’ at the madrassa seems primarily designed to inculcate Pan-Arabist nationalism, as was the ubiquitous indoctrination of anti-semitism.
His first teacher, a larger woman clad in a hijab coupled with tight skirts and thin heels (holding up huge thighs, Sattouf shows us). She would pace among her students, sharklike, carrying a large rod, which she used for violently smacking the hands of rule-breakers, dirty children, or anyone guilty of various’ crimes’ against the state. She would also spray “dirty” children with perfume to mask their smell (“A good patriot never smells bad!”, she screams at them). Other times she would humiliate students who had “accidents” in class, likening them to animals who eat their own feces.
Considering the school had no indoor toilets, I wondered how often these “accidents” would occur. Such infractions would result in painful beatings, as integral to the children’s’ education as any other. One classmate, the sickly yet kind Omar, shows young Riad his “trick” to help quell the pain by rubbing his hands together quickly, tears streaming down his pudgy, scarred face. Sattouf explains that several children at school had scarred faces (and hands), most caused by hot mugs of tea left on the floor. One day young Riad notices Omar missing from class, never to be seen again.
As with the first volume, there are instances of severe cruelty to animals (and young children) that will likely disturb some readers, which is likely their intent. One of Sattouf’s greatest gifts as a storyteller is how deftly he’s able to weave this graphic material into an otherwise innocuous narrative. Witness the mutilation of frogs by tying them to a bicycle wheel, the children analyzing their crushed bodies. Or the pulverized bodies of sparrows, their bloodied parts scattered about during a failed hunting attempt by his father.
Sattouf channels these ‘events’ from the vantage of his younger self, seldom allowing his older, and presumably wiser, adult self to interfere. By refusing to impose adult preconceptions and judgements he invites readers to not only witness these moments on their own terms, but allows them to question their own reactions to them. It’s a rare treat when authors show such respect for perspective in biographical work, not succumbing to the lure of sanitization for political correctness.
We even see glimpses of those pivotal events that would directly influence Riad Sattouf, the future cartoonist, such as his joy at learning to write Arabic letters or memories of cartoonist Mumtaz Al-Bahra’s clean, yet sanitized, depictions of young Syrian patriots.
More disturbing is how effective this limited perspective is when recalling the ‘honor killing’ Leila, his beloved cousin who showed great interest in young Riad’s emerging artistic talents, even demonstrating line perspective and focal points (“She was the first artistic genius I ever met”, he recalls). A widow living with Abdel-Razek’s considerably older half-sister, Maha, Leila had committed the ‘greatest crime of all’ by getting pregnant outside of marriage. For this, she is suffocated by her father and brother, who then bury the body in a nearby field.
Clémentine, Riad’s mother, reacts with a noticeable POP! when hearing not just the news of Leila’s killing, but that her husband would even consider not reporting Leila’s killers to the police. Again, here we see the line Abdel-Razek must tow as the intermediate between the Arab of the past and future, visibly pained while giving his French wife cultural justification that such “crimes of honor” should go unpunished.
Leila’s father and brother were turned into the police, as it happens, though not with the happy ending one might expect. To counterattack the slander of the Sattouf family’s ‘weakness’, they schemed with the judge to have the killers’ sentence commuted to merely a ‘crime of honor’, which carried a much lighter punishment. After spending just three months in prison, both were released, quickly becoming “hugely respected men” in the village.
Much like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future 2 is an important work of sincere honesty and reflection that cascades across cultural lines, refreshingly unfiltered for the politically correct. It’s amazing how howlingly funny it can be one moment, yet utterly terrifying the next. For those who’ve yet to experience the sensational first volume, be sure to rectify that mistake as soon as possible before moving onto this one. A third is also on the way, meaning you’ll be in good company for some time to come.