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The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984
Book Reviews

The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984

Sattouf’s first memoir uses objective clarity and good humor to tell a story that’s enchanting, terrifying, and satisfying.

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Cartoonist Riad Sattouf, Sattouf, a best-selling author and filmmaker in his adoptive France, makes his English-language debut with The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978 – 1984. A shorter subtitle might have been Volume One, as it’s the first of a trilogy chronicling Sattouf’s early life as a child of mixed French and Syrian parentage, dragged from country to country, culture to culture, by his passionate father and doting mother.

Originally published as L’Arabe du futur to great fanfare – and great profits – this outstanding translation (by Sam Taylor) offers English readers a compelling and often shocking look at an emergent Arab identify under the repressive leadership of characters like Muammar Gaddafi and Hafez al-Assad.

Western readers are, by now, intimately familiar with the internalized travelogue; the one that has younger nationals trekking foreign lands, returning with strange tales and stranger customs. While more well-known examples remain works like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, a simple search will bring up countless examples of individuals trekking out into the “great unknown” (unknown to them, anyway), only to return with a first-hand account and interpretation of their voyage for anxious readers back home.

So, then, what a joy it’s been to experience the inevitable trend backwards, for non-westerners to voyage out to their own ‘Great Unknown’, often with nothing more than the hope and promise of better things elsewhere, detailing the emergence of non-western people, most non-white, into worlds and cultures as foreign and mysterious as anything Conrad and Forster wrote about.

The graphic memoir is especially well-suited for showcasing this type of Bildungsroman. However, those with lesser imaginations often retreat to documenting the most banal of things: themselves. This often makes for some awfully trite and self-indulgent reading. A fan of both the graphic novel subgenre and artform as a whole, it’s almost expected I sing the praises of each ink-drenched page, to be riveted by the exhausting superficiality of their respected artists detailing every mundane and uninteresting element of their ‘private lives’, which is usually a euphemism for sex.

The Age of Narcissism has left these poor souls with the impression their experiences are, in a world of seven billion others, somehow unique and uniquely interesting to everyone.

Not that self-indulgence and introspective storytelling can’t be entertaining. They often are, in the right hands: see Guy Delisle’s humorous autobiographical travelogues. However, the genre remains as superficial and pointless as ever, offering their fans empty fast-food literature that taste good and are just as quickly forgotten.

The Middle East, alas, remains as mysterious (and dangerous) to the uninitiated as ever, especially to those whose only exposure are sensationalized newscasts and online editorials. This is why the relatively recent explosion of memoirs from artists originating from the area has been such a necessary phenomenon for not just the medium, but society as a whole.

For the first time, we not only get to read about the experiences of people from the region, but can also see things from their perspective. It’s not a coincidence that Khaled Hosseini’s masterful The Kite Runner has found great success in virtually every medium: book, film, and even graphic novel (the latter from Riverhead Books if you’re curious)

For too long, western sycophants and cultural illiterates have been telling readers what and how to think, all in the hopes that we – the non-academics – become as culturally enlightened as they. Works like Arab of the Future are necessary to dispel this elitism, not only because they offer a radically different look at cultures and people that some would only accept with condescending approval, but also because of how human and, ultimately, relatable they are.

But first, a word about comparison: not every graphic memoir should bear automatic comparison to Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The press notes accompanying my review copy of Arab of the Future make great pains to establish this connection, but I reject them. Such identifications better reflect those critics’ limited view of the graphic novel, and its possibilities, by appropriating the cultural goodwill of those popular works’ critical and mainstream acceptance.

I realize Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book is considered a pivotal moment in the history of the form, but that story is largely second-hand, satirizing his father’s horrific experiences as a Holocaust survivor of Nazi concentration camps that metamorphosed Nazis and Jews into cats and mice. While I don’t think this second-hand reporting merits a dismissal of its impact (unlike some), it certainly doesn’t merit lofting Maus as the standard-bearer for all biographical works of graphic memoirs.

A more personal accounting of Spiegelman’s own adventures would, much to my delight, likely feature his own involvement with creating the Garbage Pail Kids, which isn’t likely to have won him a Pulitzer anytime soon. Which is a shame, as I’d love to read about that history myself (no jokes, I honestly would).

This tendency for easy comparison is also close to home, even on this website, as evidenced by my colleague Josh Boykin in his review for Nanjing: The Burning City, a fine work whose gruesome story isn’t told through first-hand accounting yet still merits the requisite nod to Spiegleman.

No, Riad Sattouf’s Arab of the Future rightfully belongs among similar works like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, as the two artists share not only a multitude of professions and adopted homelands, but also ethnicity, and largely the same generalized background. This is his story, told from his own memory, even if the central character remains his father.

“I was two years old and I was perfect.” With bright puppy dog eyes and lips made for suckling, and long, silky platinum-blonde hair young Sattouf was already a natural at living. His father, Abdel-Razek, is pursuing a doctorate in history at the Sorbonne in Paris. It’s here that he meets Clémentine, the beautiful French student who first rebukes his advances but will soon become his wife and mother of Sattouf.

Spurned by what he feels is a backhanded racist slap (only achieving “cum laude”), the newly doctorized Abdel-Razek accepts an assistant professorship in Libya, and in 1978 packs up the young family and moves them to Tripoli. It’s here the family experiences the culture shock that leadership under Muammar Gaddafi has brought; lockless doors, food rations, and extreme violence. The dictator’s Green Book (not unlike Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book), extols the virtues of his political philosophy, views on science and everything else. And, as you may have guessed, is required reading.

It’s here we realize that The Arab of the Future (Volume One) is really about Abdel-Razek, his formation as a naive Syrian immigrant escaped poverty to become educated, then radicalized on his return to his native soil. His enthusiastic adoption of extremist, racist, and contradictory views never feel entirely genuine, however, and it’s often up to Clémentine, who never buys into this sick cult of personality for the Great Leader, to maintain the only real parental stability in young Sattouf’s life.

I won’t get into the politics of the era here, and neither does Abdel-Razek, excepting of course to play apologist to a growing Pan-Arabism at the time. “The Arab of the future goes to school!” his father, ever the optimist, tells his young son, dragging young Riad off on yet another adventure.

Let me state my first impression of Sattouf’s first memoir; it’s often very, very funny. Insightful, even, as the grown-up Sattouf takes readers on a child’s eye-level tour of his formative years, interpreting those things and moments that would seem foreign to anyone, let alone a prepubescent witness to such tumultuous events in Arab history.

Throughout he maintains the distorted perspective of a child; witness how he renders heaven, an amalgamation spliced together from various interpretations showing French singer Georges Brassens as God sitting in a highchair in the middle of a garden, his subjects watching him as they eat a never-ending supply of bananas.

Sattouf uses humor and caricatures to supplement what can only be described, in hindsight, as repressive and terrifying violence. It’s worth noting that Sattouf worked at France’s Charlie Hebdo magazine for over a decade (and as the publication’s only Arab cartoonist), leaving just prior to the 2015 massacre by Islamic fanatics that left twelve people dead and a further eleven injured.

This is where armchair – and academic – cultural relativists (i.e. apologists) demands we impose egalitarian views on cultural acts and their customs that can only be described, charitably, as primitive.

To his credit, Sattouf is a passive observer, seldom allowing his modern self to incriminate those surrounding his younger self. He simply presents things as he remembers them, or at least, the way he claims to remember them. That he’s able to repress what are clearly cultural indictments without resorting to petty pandering is the mark of a great author. No doubt, some will take offense to the way he renders different races of people, particularly with sweaty, swarthy, pot-marked Arabs contrasted against the cleaner, more aquiline features of the French.

Sattouf simply presents these people and their backward culture as they are, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. His blonde hair and European features incite young Syrian children to slur him as a “yehudi” (Jew), shouted with force. When young Sattouf plays “war” with his two cousins, Wael and Mohamed, using crudely-made plastic army men soldiers to represent both the Syrian and Israeli soldiers, the latter features smooth reptilian faces and poses including “Surrendering Soldier” (the front showing him waving a white flag, hiding the hidden dagger from behind), and “Dead Soldier”, face up with the Israeli flag planted firmly in his chest.

After ‘losing’ the game, Sattouf’s cousins’ elect to ‘execute’ his vanquished soldiers by sawing their heads off with a knife, shouting in triumph “Victory is ours! God is great!”. After their mother becomes enraged that her sons would destroy their toys, Wael yells in protest “I was cutting off the Jew’s head! I’m allowed to do that!”, before violently hurling the knife at her feet.

Also passively observed, with chilling effect, are the startling acts of cruelty against animals (a puppy is tortured, skewered, then beheaded) or the blase ill-treatment of cattle and other farm animals by children and adults alike. Some will be shocked at these graphic depictions of violence, more common in graphic novels but largely absent from the sanitized cartoons and comic funnies created for the younger set. This is especially true for those whose exposure to the medium may be limited to those sanctioned as ‘literature’ by The New York Times – a distinction as subjective as it is capricious.

This is both the advantage and curse of the form; the artist is able to render these cultures and symbols far better than the most erudite text ever could (pictures worth thousands of words, if you remember). But there’s no denying the impact of seeing Sattouf’s juxtaposition of his cute, adorable Riad against the visual carnage of Syrian cultural norms that any sane person would find disturbing.

The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978 – 1984 is deceptively enchanting, terrifying, and satisfying all at once. While this first volume – of a trilogy – focuses mostly on the wayward antics of young Riad Sattouf’s father, it will be interesting to see the artist grow into his own man in future editions. As for the events here, it’s tragic that, in these politically correct and stifling times, simply detailing one’s own truth should be considered heroic. That Sattouf does so with such objective clarity and good humor is remarkable.