There’s no doubt about it: Riad Sattouf’s autobiographical graphic novel, The Arab of the Future, is the cartoon of the moment. In France, the two first volumes have exceeded 200,000 copies, and meanwhile, Sattouf’s childhood memoir is available in fourteen different languages.
The cartoonist, film director and long-standing Charlie Hebdo columnist was born in 1978 as the son of a Syrian and Frenchwoman. He spent his childhood in Libya and Syria. He only arrived in France aged twelve after his parents’ divorce.
While Civil War rages in Syria and the cultural conflict between the Arabic and Western world is becoming increasingly virulent, Riad Sattouf’s reminiscences are obviously hitting the nerve of the time, just as Marjane Satrapi did fifteen years ago with Persepolis.
The Arab of the Future is also interesting, in particular, thanks to the ambivalent personality of Riad Sattouf’s father, Abdel. After studying in France he had a choice between the Universities of Oxford and Tripoli – much to the regret of his wife, he opted for Libya. Because the idealist intellectual and ardent supporter of pan-Arabism wanted to make his contribution to enlightenment and modernization of the Arabic world. Hence, the Sattouf family landed in 1980 in Libya and a few years later in Syria, where President Hafez el-Assad ruled with an iron fist.
It was no problem for Abdel: the Arabs, as he explains to his son, need the harsh hand of dictators – only they could drive out religiosity from them and make them fit for a pan-Arabic future. At the same time, the atheist Sunni reacts with growing sensitivity to any vilification of Sunni faith – evidently, he is immersed much more deeply in the Islamic Middle Ages than he himself admits.
The longer that Abdel lives in the lap of his family in rural Syria, the stronger his cultural heritage manifests itself. Under the yoke of the family and traditions modern pan-Arabism retreats and this leads to a certain loss of orientation. On the one hand, he ingratiates himself with a general, who is a relative, and simultaneously he immerses his son in an unpleasant broth of patriotism, religion and patriarchalism and – to the intense horror of his wife – he even shows understanding for the honour killing of his widowed cousin who becomes pregnant aged 35. There is no place for Riad’s mother in this rural and conservative men’s world, unless she were to renounce her own culture and values and to become subservient.
Riad observes this world with the impartiality of a six-year-old boy. That is Sattouf’s great art. No matter how complex the topics, which he addresses, he never drops out of the role of the child who observes everything, doesn’t understand a lot and questions very little: his father’s contradictions, his mother’s resignation and the discrepancies between ideals and reality, between politics, religion and the everyday or the brutal anti-Semitism of the Syrian children. This attitude is also expressed in the drawings: realism isn’t Sattouf’s thing; he is a cartoonist of humour whose lines are loose, sketchy and implicit, superimposing in caricature form – and in the best sense also childish. Yet always very precise.
The Arab of the Future contributes a great deal to a better understanding of the current situation. On the one hand, Sattouf’s childhood recollections grant an insight into Arab states under authoritarian rule. And on the other there looms a no less revealing cultural and social conflict in the tensions between father and mother.
Sattouf processes his Arabic childhood with plenty of humour – even and especially where no jokes might be required. Precisely this makes Sattouf a great humourist and satirist: he is capable of laughing with us about everything – also about what he personally takes extremely seriously.
Riad Sattouf, English edition, The Arab of the Future is published by Metropolitan Books
By Christian Gasser
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright