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Review: ‘Haytham: A Childhood in Syria’ by Kyungeun Park & Nicolas Hénin

“Haytham: A Childhood in Syria” by Kyungeun Park & Nicolas Hénin

“Haytham: A Childhood in Syria” depicts a typical Syrian family in clear and accessible terms–and that alone is a powerful vehicle to understanding Syria today. Like many an American family, each individual helps the other to progress. In the al-Aswad family, much is expected from young Haytham. He demonstrates both academic and athletic skill. And he adores his activist father. It is in following this family that the reader is given a unique perspective into how average Syrians live under a dictatorship–and how they resist.

Growing up with the Assad regime.

The story begins with Haytham reveling in the beauty of lemon trees in his family’s garden. By age four, he observes the first signs of threat from the outside world. The dictator Hafez al-Assad has died. Haytham’s father is jubilant. But the celebration is short-lived. Assad’s son, Bashir, takes over control. And so the control of the Ba’ath Party continues and intensifies. The Ba’ath Party is Soviet-inspired, complete with its own secret police, the Mukhabarat.

A graphic novel about Syria that educates and enlightens.

The script is based upon the true story of Haytham al-Aswad. It is written by Nicolas Hénin, a French journalist who was held hostage by Isis for 10 months. Hénin has spoken out against air strikes in Syria, saying they represent “a trap” for Britain and other members of the international community. The reader will appreciate the sense of urgency to this story, an authentic work of reportage uniquely brought to life in a graphic novel format. The story of Mr. Hénin, and his thoughtful views, are very compelling:

Illustrator Kyungeun Park (Yallah Bye) does a heroic job of bringing Hénin’s script to life. Park has a very warm approach to family and character details. The reader is made to feel at home and compelled to invest in the story. Park does great justice to a graphic novel equipped to do much good: to both educate and enlighten.

Kyung-eun Park, Haytham al-Aswad, and Nicolas Hénin

Crossing the border into Jordan.

“Haytham: A Childhood in Syria” is an 80-page graphic novel, black & white with gray tones. This book was originally published in France by Dargaud. You can find it at izneo, the place to go to read European comics in French and in English. Izneo BD Comics Manga is the best app for French-Belgian comics, with thousands of digital comic books. Give the izneo comics reader a test drive right here.

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Filed under Al Qaeda, Comics, ISIS, izneo, Middle East, Syria

Review: ‘The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir’ by Riad Sattouf

Arab of the Future Riad Sattouf

“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 Arab of the Future

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.

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Filed under Charlie Hebdo, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, graphic novels, Middle East