The worst thing that could be said about Riad Sattouf’s third volume of illustrated memoirs about his childhood growing up among vastly different cultures is that it offers readers “more of the same” found in previous volumes 1 and 2. Funny how that phrase can be seen as derogatory, but with Arab of the Future 3: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1985-1987 this means more of Sattouf’s wonderfully drawn and often brutally honest recollections of his formative years….with translation from the original French L’Arabe du futur, once again, provided by Sam Taylor, for the win.
As expected, reading both previous volumes is required to fully understand the story and characters here, which you’ll want to do anyway. You wouldn’t jump into the finale season of Game of Thrones and expect to know why everyone’s bent on killing everyone else, would you?
Vol 3 begins with a now seven-year-old Riad Sattouf, still with his bouncy blonde locks and still amazing. It’s now 1985, and the relationship between his Syrian dad, Abdel-Razek, and French mom Clémentine, has elevated to a boiling point (or perhaps young Riad is better able to recognize their marital struggles better as he matures). His ‘noticing’ imperfections around him, particularly those of his father’s, becomes a theme that runs throughout this particular volume.
As before, Sattouf focuses largely on observing his father from the perspective – literally and subjectively – as well as any seven-year-old possibly could. Abdel-Razek, now a professor dreaming of striking it rich with a bountiful harvest from a questionable orchard of peach and apricot trees. This “glorious forest” itself becomes a metaphor of sorts, not just for Abdel-Razek, but to what future his family could possibly have in a land seemingly incompatible with the winds of change and modernity.
Appalled by their decrepit living conditions and lack of basic amenities, Clémentine wants out. Out of Syria, possibly out of their marriage. Her “modern” views, as seen from young Riad’s brief glimpses, may not have been as heretical as they might appear. Swap Syria for France (which often happens) and we see any other couple fighting over any old thing: housing, appliances, money, religious differences. One could frame Clémentine’s growing independence as some break from Middle-eastern patriarchal suppression, but a more honest analysis is that she learns to see through her husband’s bullshit.
For young Riad, however, the process of simply existing on the edge of two cultures has only begun to take effect, and several times we see glimpses where he shows recognition of his father’s embellishments. Still, like most young boys he is easily impressed by these “accomplishments”, such as learning his father is revered by no less than President Assad’s bodyguard. Even this relationship, we discover, was more transactional than reputational.
People are stupid, Abdel-Razek explains to young Riad, and there’s always more of them. One day they’ll be sick of losing to their superiors and gang up against them. This he calls the TRIUMPH OF THE DUMBEST. Such is the fate for sons of great men like Abdel-Razek. “Crush them, but do it quietly.” he tells his wide-eyed progeny. “And be charitable.”
As before, it becomes evident that it is Abdel-Razek himself that represents “the Arab of the future”, straddling two seemingly contrasting – and clashing – cultures, yet never quite fitting into either. Riad Sattouf, grown and illustrating his memories, is the beneficiary of this unhappy marriage.
How Riad Sattouf (the cartoonist) guides actions using specific coloring remains every bit as telling as his disarming, adorable style…except whenever presenting material itself becomes unappetizing. Themes of animal cruelty continue in this volume, although their frequency (and graphic violence) feels muted only by comparison. In France Riad sees his grandmother’s neighbor “disposing” a bag of unwanted kittens in a dumpster, but not before giving the bag a good thumping; that her attempt wasn’t entirely successful somehow makes it even worse.
Back in Syria, their neighbor’s poor suffering donkey, who we last saw being beaten in previous volumes, makes an unappetizing return as a rotting carcass discarded by a local river. Riad’s admission to feeling ashamed for tossing a rock at the corpse well into adulthood indicates a maturation in not just his character but in his ability to recognize cruelty outside of culture.
Depictions of violence against children has also, sadly, become a necessary trademark of Riad’s memoirs, and Vol 3 is no different. I say necessary because the very nature of these stories depend on a frankness and willingness to show ‘what happened’, warts and all. Riad’s uncircumcised “willy” has played into the story before, especially as he defends himself – and his mother – against allegations they’re actually Jews in disguise.
Despite the setting, religion has never really played that big a role in Sattouf’s memoirs up to this point, except to add cultural flavor. Here, Abdel-Razek’s perceived heresy as an unobservant Muslim becomes an inpenetrable wedge between his dueling Syrian and western obligations. Somewhere between belief and rationality, Abdel-Razek struggles to find that elusive balance that will satisfy both sides, culminating with his young son’s own “path to manhood” – his circumcision.
To a young Riad, however, religion itself existed only in the abstract, only as real as when Santa brought his gifts and as fleeting as a failed attempt to observe Ramadan. To connect his father’s insecurities to his most personal of bodily appendages, as depicted here, could be seen as a justification for accusations he abandoned the faith of his father, or perhaps some crass metaphor for emasculation.
In what’s perhaps the series’ most hallucinogenic segue yet Sattouf dedicates several pages to “retelling” the story of 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. His reaction to first seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger in full glory on the VHS box was probably similar to how most first saw the future Governor of California. “I’d never seen such a handsome, muscular man in my life. I was blown away.” When asked if the film was okay for a 7-year-old boy the sales clerk replies with the best possible answer: “It’s a man’s film.”
As young Riad and his cousins watch their eyeballs glaze over with testosterone-fueled wonder. Perhaps the boys could relate to this barbaric fantasy world where violence could solve all your problems, where simply lopping off heads was enough to settle scores. Entranced by the epic nature of the story of young Conan’s rise from orphaned child slave to champion and eventually to King, yet still a barbarian ‘created’ after the insidious Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) destroyed his village and killed his mother.
Perched atop the television the boys watched this unfold was his father’s ever-present toy bull, which by now has become symbolic of Abdel-Razek’s duality between the allure of modernization against the pull of his reactionary upbringing. The night before Riad’s circumcision he dreams he’s being attacked by two bulls, only to be saved at the last second by none other than Grandizer, the giant Japanese mecha-robot toy promised to young Riad as a “circumcision present” by his father. The symbolism seems clear: can life outside Syria (the west) “save” Riad from a corrupting life of misery and violence? Could it save his father?
The Arab of the Future 3 ends with an unusual (for this series) forward momentum that signals big things to come from the upcoming Vol 4, which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling here. The Sattouf family is on the move once again, presumably to bigger, better things in lands elsewhere. Recognition of indoctrination is the first step to freedom from it, and it will be interesting to witness Riad’s inevitable transformation into the successful “western” artist he’s become. We can expect two more volumes of his journey there – meaning there’s plenty of time to catch up with the first and second volumes before diving in here.