by Mitchell Abidor
Discussed in this essay: The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East (1978-84), by Riad Sattouf, 2015, Metropolitan Books.
WHEN RIAD SATTOUF'S graphic novel, The Arab of the Future, was published in France in 2014, it met with almost unprecedented success for a graphic novel, indeed, for almost any kind of novel. It sold an unimaginable 200,000 copies and met with strong reactions, both positive and negative. It was praised for its honesty, and was condemned as spreading clichés about the Arab world and playing into the hands of those who are anti-Arab. Truth be told, this brilliant autobiographical tale (now translated into English by Sam Taylor), the first of what will be four volumes, deserves both the praise and the blame.
Sattouf is the son of a French mother and a Syrian father. His father met his mother when they were studying at the Sorbonne, his father’s studies paid for by the Syrian government. Sattouf père was a pan-Arabist, and when he finished his studies, pursuing his political dream he took his family first to Libya and then to Syria. The story for young Riad was not a happy one, and that’s the one that is told.
The book sticks rigorously to the point of view of Riad as a child, and for the young boy life in Libya and Syria was both puzzling and revolting. In Libya, under the rule of Ghaddafi, houses had no set owner but everyone was guaranteed housing. And so the day the Sattoufs arrive in Libya they go for a walk and upon their return find their belongings piled up outside and their new home occupied by another family. Riad’s mother almost never leaves the apartment they are next assigned.
Life in Arab lands as viewed by Sattouf is dominated by one sense: smell. Hardly a page goes by when we’re not told of someone or some place’s stench: his neighbor’s mother, who smells of “incense and poop,” the “mouldy smell” of food, and constant, overpowering, omnipresent smell of shit, for in The Arab of the Future, the streets serve as toilets.
If the air wreaks, so do the relations among people. Life is constant scrum, with people stepping over each other to get the least thing; dishonesty and cheating are the order of the day. Riad’s father is cheated of his land in their village in Syria by a brother who sold it while he was in Europe, thinking he’d never return and be any the wiser. Brutality to animals exists alongside brutality towards people: the children play at beating a dog and end by skewering it on a pitchfork, at which point its head is lopped off by an adult.
Conversation hardly exists: Cursing is the mode of communication, and the first curse Riad learns in Arabic, indeed the first word, is “Yahudi.” So strong is the hatred of Jews in The Arab of the Future that when the children play with toy soldiers, Riad’s playmates finds nothing better to do than cut the Israeli enemy’s head off. Speaking about this in an interview, Sattouf explained that even the few pleasant characters in the book hated Jews, less out of evil anti-Semitism than because Jew-hatred is “a societal thing” in Syria.
THE STREETS in the book are lined with houses whose walls are cracking, filth lies everywhere, kids crap on the streets, the men are all ugly, poorly dressed loafers. Each country the family resided in has a different colored wash over the drawings, blue for France, yellow for Libya, pink for Syria, clearly delineating his different milieus, and Riad himself, who was “mega-handsome” (his own words when interviewed about the book) as a child, is drawn with long, flowing blond locks. All of this is depicted in a simple style, one more resembling children’s comics than Art Spiegelman in Maus or Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis or the dark world of the great Jacques Tardi. Sattouf chose to draw the book in the style of the comic artists he read as a child, particularly Hergé, the author of Tintin, with “clean lines, square boxes, features traced with a ruler, and texts clearly written at the top” — though the drawing look more to be derived from the French Lucky Luke series than Tintin. Sattouf’s text works against this classic, even old-fashioned style, and this contradiction between style and content makes the book all the stronger.
Riad’s father’s dreams of a progressive, free Arab world is shown to be a foolish illusion — and the depiction of Arabs and the Arab world matches almost too perfectly the most anti-Arab of images put forth. Superstition, misogyny, political swagger, poisoned relations between people are the dominant features of daily life. Riad’s father continues to believe against all the evidence. His mother can ultimately take no more, and returns to France with the young boy.
Sattouf, who moved back to France with his mother while still a child and has no contact with his father, worked as a cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, leaving the magazine before the killings in January 2015. His feature there, "The Secret Life of Youth," was a kind of Parisian “Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies,” a recording of overheard conversations. As such, Sattouf didn’t participate in the issues that led to the murders.
But his working for Charlie demonstrates that Riad Sattouf is little concerned about what is acceptable and correct. It can, I suppose, be said that writing about Syria and Libya as he does serves the cause of racism and reaction. But this is hardly relevant as a critique: Sattouf is writing his autobiography, not a political tract, and the portrait he presents is that of a child torn between parents of different nationalities, different worlds, a child astride two civilizations that don’t clash as such, but that, in the eyes of young Riad, stand at antipodes from each other in almost all regards. As he said in an interview for a French newspaper: “I recount events as I remember them.”
He has also defended himself against the charge that his portrait of life in Syrian and Libya is entirely dark or racist. Speaking of his depiction of his father’s Syrian village, he explains: "[I]t was an incredibly inegalitarian society. I wanted to show the reader that in this village people were often violent with each other because they were poor.” And the poverty and the life of the Syrian poor, he says, was the result of a wealthy class “that resembled Westerners and allowed us to live this way.” It’s a vision that has to be confronted.
Already translated into sixteen languages, The Arab of the Future has not yet been translated into Arabic. Several publishers in Arab countries, which Sattouf prefers not to name, have approached his French publisher. He prefers to wait until the series is completed for the translation to appear, “in Arabic speaking countries I’d like to be democratic.”
Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new book is Voices of the Paris Commune.