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The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf

February 20, 2017 17 comments

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf (Volumes 1 to 3) (2014-2016) Original French title: L’Arabe du futur.

sattouf_1A 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.

sattouf_2The 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.

sattouf_3Abdel’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.

Mafalda and me

July 3, 2012 26 comments

July is Spanish Literature Month at Caravana de Recuerdos and Winston’s Dad Blog. It’s an opportunity for me to write a billet about Mafalda. I’m not sure comics qualify as literature for this event but I suppose Richard and Stu will forgive me. Mafalda is the little girl you see on my gravatar and some of my personal posts.

She’s very famous in France and her albums are available in most bookshops. Her father is Quino, an Argentinean cartoonist. Quino’s comics were published from 1964 to 1973 in three different magazines or newspapers. (Primera Plan, El Mundo and Siete Dias Illustrados). Then Quino decided to put an end to it, thinking his concept was worn out.

Mafalda is a Charlie Brown with a strong political awareness. It’s a flavour of Argentina and the world in the 1960s. As a character, Mafalda is both a child and an adult. As a child, she goes to school, plays with friends and asks endless questions to her parents. She hates soup and Quino uses it as comical material. Once you see Mafalda sitting at the dinner table and when her mother brings her a plate full of soup, she tells her: “Perhaps it’s sad, Rachel, but in such cases Mom is barely a pseudonym”. This is Mafalda and her brother Guille:  

Mafalda:What are you doing with the phone, Guille?Guille:Me El CordobesMafalda: El Cordobes? Where’s the bull?

Her adult side tends to ask tricky questions to her poor father, make sarcastic remarks about the news and point out the adults’ inconsistencies and flaws. Living in the 1960s, she worries about the Cold War, the Vietnam War, peace in general and the state of the world in particular. 

Mother:What are you doing, Mafalda?Mafalda:Nothing, Mom. Just contemplating Humanity.Mother: Humanity?

Mafalda also shows a certain side of the Argentinean society and its evolution. Mafalda’s father buys a car (a 2CV) and the whole neighbourhood raves about it. Mafalda eventually gets a telly but soon criticizes the programs. She dances on the Beatles’ songs. Mafalda’s mother rants about price increases and her daughter pities her for being a stay-at-home mother, spending her days doing chores. (a nice touch of feminism) The family turtle is named Bureaucracy.

Mafalda’s friends are stereotypes: Susanita is obsessed with getting married, having children and settling down. She’s the conservative side, representing the bourgeoisie. Manolito’s goal in life is to make money and expand his father’s grocery store into a chain of supermarket. His model is American capitalism. Miguelito and Felipe are typical children. I have a fondness for Felipe. He’s a dreamer, reading comics with superheroes. He hates school and he’s the one to bring Mafalda back to childhood when she’s too absorbed by politics. Her games are tainted with political themes, like here:

Miguelito:What are you playing at?Mafalda: I’m Freedom, lightening the world with her light of … 15 Watts.

 All in all, with his regular pictures of the society he lives in, Quino managed to capture the essence of a time and spiced it with universal, poetic and philosophical comments. Like here: 

Mafalda:Good morning Sir. I would like you to make me the key of happiness.Old man:Of course, dear. Give me your template.Mafalda, leaving:Clever, the old man. 

I absolutely love Mafala for her sharp tongue, her cynicism, her lucidity. And did I mention it? It is FUNNY. Not stretch-a-smile funny but laughing-out-loud funny. So I was a bit puzzled when a friend asked me why I chose a chubby girl as an avatar. He thought I should have put the photo of a gorgeous model, since I didn’t put mine. But I’d rather be represented by this smart and funny little girl than by a living skeleton doing the cat walk on a stage for a living.

If you want to hear more about her, here is an article by Umberto Eco (sorry, it’s in French).

PS: I hope everything looks fine on your computer. It does on mine. I did my best

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