The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf (Volumes 1 to 3) (2014-2016) Original French title: L’Arabe du futur.
A colleague recently lent me the comic books The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf. Before going further and tell you about it, I’m going to introduce a new French word: bande-dessinée, or BD. This is the French word for comic books. Literally, it means drawing strip. I like it better than comic book because BD sounds neutral. Comic book conveys the idea that what you’re going to read is funny. But not all comic books are funny. So, BD it will be on this blog.
Back to The Arab of the Future. Riad Sattouf is the son of a Syrian man, Abdel-Razak Sattouf and of a French woman, Clémentine. They met in Paris when Abdel was working on his thesis at La Sorbonne. Riad was born in 1978 and The Arab of the Future is a BD about the author’s childhood in different places in the Middle East. Its subtitle is A Youth in the Middle East.
Abdel is convinced that pan-Arabism will be the future of the Arab people. He wants to teach at university and doesn’t want to stay in France. He first accepts a position in Tripoli (Libya), where Gaddafi is in power. Abdel is in awe of Arab dictators because he thinks they will bring modernity to their people, because he sees them as manly and powerful. He believes they will improve people’s lives.
The Arab of the Future is told through Riad’s eyes and in these three volumes, he’s a child. He describes everything with candor and as children do, he takes things as they are. They are his normality and us, as adults, cringe at what he describes. Sattouf the author manages to mix the description of life in these countries with Riad’s personal life with his family.
The Sattoufs remain in Libya from 1978 to 1984. They live under Gaddafi’s rule and Riad describes his daily life. Houses belong to the government and don’t have locks. Anyone can settle in a house even if someone’s already living there. As a consequence, Riad’s mother never lets their apartment unattended. Anyone could come and claim it and they’d be homeless.
After a few years, they move to Syria, in Abdel’s village near Homs, Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. Riad has now a little brother, Yahua. He’s and he gets acquainted with his Syrian family. He explains the mores, the politics in their family and the relationship between siblings and cousins. Abdel is happy to live near his mother despite his rocky relationship with his older brother. Clémentine settles in this remote village that lives a century behind compared to France or even to Damas. The water looks strange, power goes out for hours in the day and she cooks on some portable stove. They have no decoration in their home and she’s stuck there. She doesn’t speak Arab and cannot communicate with her in-laws. She cannot work, of course, so she stays at home, takes care of the house and children and teaches French to Riad.
Riad describes his life as a child. He learns how to speak Arab in school and with his father’s family and French at home. We see how he plays games with the neighboring cousins and a good part of the book is dedicated to his first year in school. Clémentine didn’t want him to go to school in Ter Maaleh, the village they live in but Abdel insisted. He wants Riad to be a good pupil and become the Arab of the Future. We readers discover what school is like in a dictatorship: experiencing corporal punishment, singing the national anthem every morning and learning how to worship the president.
As a little boy, Riad was blond. Of course, he’s the only blond person around and his hair color is a problem for him. The other pupils think he’s Jewish and nothing can be worse than that in Syria. He’s not at ease in school and he’s afraid of bullies.
The second volume goes from 1984 to 1985 and the Sattoufs are still in Syria. They settle there and through visits to acquaintances and rich relatives, we discover another side of Syria’s dictatorship. We also go to Homs and see how Abdel buys contraband goods to furnish their home and improve their comfort.
The third volume goes from 1985 to 1987. There’s more about life in Ter Maleh. Riad grows up, he understands the conversations of the adults. He relates how poorly women are treated. One of his aunts is killed by a family member because she was pregnant without being married. She was a widow and had previously been married by her parents to a much older man. Women of this generation didn’t go to school and one of Riad’s aunt pretends that she can’t read when she obviously learnt how to read as the same time Abdel did.
Abdel’s family doesn’t understand why he chose to live in this godforsaken village when he could live in France. Trips to France are organized and Riad is filled with wonder when he goes to the supermarket. He visits his maternal grand-parents in rural Brittany. He learns how to catch crabs by the sea.
Oddly, I made a connection between the peasants of Brittany and the ones in Syria. Clémentine’s family is one generation ahead of Abdel’s. Clémentine’s mother is apparently the result of the French Republic’s school system. She came from poor peasant family, studied in school and went to Paris to work in a post-office. She came back to Brittany when she retired. Seen through Riad’s young and innocent eyes, visiting old illiterate Breton peasants is a lot like visiting old illiterate Syrian relatives. Except that in Syria, the illiterate relatives can be Abdel’s siblings, like his sister.
For Riad, this is normal life. He lives in the two cultures and he adapts. When he’s in Syria, the background of the BD is pink. When he’s in France, it’s blue. These are two worlds that never collide; his grand-parents never saw each other. He makes the difference between the two but he likes both. He wants to be a good Syrian pupil to please his father and studies French with his mother.
It’s more complicated for his parents. Riad lives in two cultures and Abdel lives between two cultures. He wears a suit at the university and a jellaba at home. He’s an atheist but his mother bugs him relentlessly about religion and following the rules. It’s hard for him to promote modernity and respect traditional ways of life in order not to offend his family. It must have been hard for him to see his dream of living in a modern Syria fall apart under the blows of reality. The regime is a dictatorship. Corruption is the norm and everything can be bought, even what he worships more than anything else, education and diplomas.
And what about Clémentine? In her mind, she lives in French. She celebrates Christmas and Riad’s the only child in Ter Maleh that Santa Claus visits. Everything is so far away from French culture that I wonder how she survived. She can’t connect with anyone because she doesn’t speak Arab. She’s at home all the time and she can’t work. She must have been very much in love with her husband to accept these living conditions and this atmosphere. Sometimes I wanted her to rebel, to demand to leave this backward village and at least live in Damas. And sometimes, she does rebel. And Abdel tries to bring a bit of France to her.
All these ingredients make of The Arab of the Future a fantastic read. I loved it. It’s educational and not judgmental. It doesn’t sugarcoat barbaric traditions and shows real life in Libya and Syria’s dictatorships. Riad is a casual observer and we readers read between the lines. It’s extremely well staged, not to mention a sweet sense of humour.
I could write pages about it and for you, there’s only one way to go now: get it and read it. The first two volume have been published in English by Metropolitan Books. Thanks to them for bringing this wonderful BD to the English-speaking public.