At 288 pages, The Arab of the Future 4: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1987-1992 is brimming with incidents, as emotional events continue to evolve the Sattouf family. As the penultimate entry in Riad Sattouf’s groundbreaking series of graphic memoirs about a childhood spent between French and Syrian cultures, with the concluding volume due later next year, this gives you plenty of time to read through this and volumes 1, 2, and 3 before it concludes.
It’s 1987 and young Riad is nearly ten years old, his once enviable blonde locks have begun changing to a coarser, lighter brown. Most of the Sattouf family are now living fulltime in France with Clémentine’s parents after his father, Abdel-Razek, accepted a teaching position at the University of Riyadh in Saudia Arabia. He’s been gone for six months, which is just as well as the tension we saw percolating in volume 3 has escalated into a roiling boil, on the verge of an explosion.
His beloved grandparents offer both the love and stability Riad desperately lacked in Syria, especially around his budding artistic talents, and as a young man trying to find his place in a world of contrasting cultures. But this relative tranquility is upended when his father expectedly returns in the dead of night, bringing with him all of the toxicity and angst the Sattouf’s thought they’d left behind in Syria. Given Clémentine’s health issues and Abdel’s perceived displacement as the family patriarch, the reunion doesn’t go well.
So much of this series has focused on the emotional struggles of Abdel-Razek, a man attempting to straddle what he feels are contrasting cultures by resurrecting, in some cases manufacturing, Arab pride in the face of unbelievable adversity. In this way he’s come to identify as the real “Arab of the future”, though this has begun to change as the focus shifts from young Riad simply observing his father to becoming the series’ namesake. We see the emergence of a young man who’s only just beginning to understand the world around him as he matures into adulthood.
Puberty is never pleasant for anyone, and it certainly wasn’t for a younger, ganglier Riad. In the last volume, an impressionable Riad practically worshipped a manly, muscled Arnold Schwarzenegger, but here Tom Cruise is now “the most handsome man in Hollywood”, and the difference couldn’t be more clear – Conan may chop off heads, but Top Gun gets the ladies. And it’s clear there’s no escaping the changes that will forever usher a naive young boy into a world obsessed with sex and identity.
Perhaps Riad Sattouf’s greatest skills as an artist is his uncanny ability to interpret, not just draw, inner feelings and desires. Nowhere is this better illustrated throughout the Arab of the Future series than how he depicts his own burgeoning sexuality and its effect on the world around him. He skillfully knows what to show – and what not to. Like how light filtering through his older cousin Qamar’s body-covering hijab only further highlights her shapely, forbidden legs, or the smell of a relative’s musky sweat.
Confusion around sexuality rears itself in unexpected ways, showcasing the mentality between how children and adults perceive intended insults. F-words, designed for maximum emasculation, are scattered throughout the story like confetti, where it had less to do with sexuality than simply being different from other boys. In Riad’s case, his affinity for drawing over athletics and his effeminate voice. But people tend to conflate the two, like when his step-grandfather begins to explain that it’s an insulting term for homosexual men before he’s silenced by his irritated wife.
Previous volumes have focused on the Sattouf family’s daily life and acclimation to Syrian culture, with occasional excursions into a more “civilized” France. With much of the story now taking place in Europe we see République française isn’t without its share of bigots, racists, and religious fanatics, albeit from an entirely different (i.e. privileged) vantage point.
How this manifests can be seen in isolated pockets for those who’ve yet to fully assimilate, including the infamous “no-go zones”. When Riad and a friend are accosted by a pack of Arab kids, the friend is surprised to learn that Riad still considers himself an Arab, despite outward appearances. When challenged to prove he’s a “real Arab” by speaking Arabic, Riad realizes that he’s forgotten the language. Having never been asked to consider his nationality before, he begins to question his identity: is he truly “Arab” or simply a French kid with an Arab name?
The Arab of the Future 4 is the most depressing of Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoirs yet, and there’s still one left to come. Perhaps it was inevitable that much of the joyful exuberance from previous volumes would give way to more troubling and visceral content, especially with later chapters delving into more disturbing territory. But it’s this frank honesty and willingness to tackle the darkness head-on that gives Sattouf’s series its power, not just to entertain but also to tell a uniquely personal story that could only have been told in this format – and by this author.