“The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984: A Graphic Memoir,” by Riad Sattouf, is a must-read for anyone interested in a story that helps to illuminate the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. As I was preparing this review this weekend, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran over events that heated the tension between the Sunni majority and the Shitte minority. Brought down to an intimate level, in the spirit of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” Sattouf’s graphic novel takes us into a part of the world many of us would like to understand better.
Riad Sattouf provides us with a amazing tale spanning his earliest years, from birth up to age six, in this first part to his memoirs. Told from a child’s point of view, it is eye-opening and honest. But it’s also told from a no-holds-barred adult’s point of view. Sattouf was a contributor to the controversial satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo. What this extended narrative helps to do is give some insight into a certain way of seeing and a certain sense of humor that may challenge readers the further away they are from the scene. Sattouf is in a unique position to undertake such a work having been born into a family with a Syrian father and a French mother.
No doubt, this is not a sentimental journey. And, while it is educational, this is not suitable for children. I’d say late teens on up. Above all, this is a fascinating story with a whimsical and surprising energy. We follow little Riad literally from his earliest days as a cute towhead frolicking in innocence. And, little by little, we see that innocence chipped away.
Sattouf depicts his father as both bookish/academic and crude/uncouth. His mother he depicts as refined but ultimately subservient to her husband. And Sattouf cannot help but dwell on the backwardness and the darkness he believes he may have witnessed in the Middle East at such a young age. He regularly describes the Arabs he comes in contact with in terms of the sweat he smells from them. While that is more of the child’s-eye at play, it speaks to a special tension the author is dealing with. Sattouf sees himself, like Marjane Satrapi, as an ultimate outsider. As the book’s title ironically states, it is little Riad who is in conflict with the idea of being the Arab of the future.
Aside from the portrait of young Riad, the portraits of Libya under Gaddafi and Syria under Assad are quite interesting. We get a firsthand look at Gaddafi’s attempt at creating a utopia with free housing for everyone. There’s only one catch: you can’t lock your home. So, if someone else comes by in need of a home, and you’re not around, they can take it over. Assad’s Syria, during a relatively peaceful time, looks like a war zone.
Sattouf’s father, full of idealism and for his own selfish reasons, brings his family to live in very challenging conditions in Libya and Syria. To make it worse, Sattouf would be moved back and forth so he had life in Paris to factor in as well. It was to be a life layered in conflict on many levels. Which brings us back to Sattouf’s connection with Charlie Hebdo and its controversy and tragedy. The biggest problem that a provocative one panel gag cartoon has is that it is a provocative one panel gag cartoon. However, with a graphic novel, you have a much better chance to deal with a myriad of thoughts and emotions running a lifetime, running generations. So, yes, this book will provoke. You should know that. But it is definitely worth reading.
“The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir” is a 160-page trade paperback published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. For more details, visit the book’s site right here.