The Arab of the Future, by Riad Sattouf


The Arab of the Future is a graphic novel, or as it’s referred to on the cover a “graphic memoir”—in other words a book-length comic book. It is the first volume of a multi-volume set. I believe either two or three volumes have been completed as I write this (with at most two translated into English so far), with more planned.

It is an autobiographical book, or set of books, chronicling author Sattouf’s life in chronological order. This first volume covers birth (or at least the commencement of his memories) through age 6, 1978-1984.

Sattouf is the product of a mixed marriage. His father is an Arab, specifically a Syrian, who studied in France, and there met and married a blonde French girl. For these first six years of Sattouf’s life, the family spends extended periods in France, Libya, and Syria. The periods in France are mostly just interludes; the father has a teaching position in Libya and then Syria, and the family tags along as he has to move for his career.

The Arab of the Future is a wonderful book, entertaining and insightful from start to finish. Sattouf as narrator mostly sticks to the perspective of his young child self. He is the wide-eyed innocent, observing everything with curiosity, wonder, and at times fear.

He is really too young to dislike or judge. In memoirs of childhood that extend to the teens and beyond—I’m thinking both of graphic novels like The Complete Persepolis and conventional books like All the Fishes Come Home to Roost—I found myself assessing the narrators/authors as much or more than any other characters, liking them some times more than others, but Sattouf is so little, and is acted upon so much more than he acts, that he’s not a moral character in that sense. As I say, he’s very much the observer, and we see, and judge, what he sees, and is too young to judge.

It’s interesting how his memories seem to be as much about how things smelled as how they looked or sounded. The Arabs smell sweaty to him; the French smell of spice and perfume. (He actually prefers the sweaty smell.)

There is somewhat of an organized narrative to the book—you get a pretty good sense of where they are, for how long, what they’re doing, etc.—but really it’s like a series of snapshots of the incidents that happened to burn themselves into young Sattouf’s memory.

Memories, of course, are notoriously unreliable, especially those from such a young age, so I’m not sure if we are supposed to take everything in the book strictly literally, or if it’s to be understood that a lot of it is altered, exaggerated, etc. as reality is filtered through decades-old memories. I chose not to dwell on that as I read, but to pretty much take it all at face value, which may or may not be appropriate.

Sattouf carries the blessing/curse of always standing out in these Arab countries, with his long flowing locks of platinum blonde hair.

I found myself fascinated by his parents, and by trying to figure out the dynamics of their relationship by reading between the lines.

Certainly the father is the dominant figure of the book. Early on I assessed him as basically a sincere and decent man—albeit a misguided one who is way too willing to believe the best about the worst people, as long as they’re Arab—who cares about his family and wants to do right by them.

But over time his more unappealing traits wore on me. Not that I ever completely lost sympathy for him, but there’s plenty about him that rubs me the wrong way.

He’s one of those extreme chauvinists who just takes it for granted that his group is superior and is always right. Israel and America are evil, France and the rest of Europe aren’t much better, Africans are inferior, Islam is the greatest of religions (even though he’s not even particularly religious), the man is the head of the family with the woman and children subordinate to him, etc. Even Arab dictators aren’t to be criticized like other dictators; he is an apologist for Gaddafi and Assad.

He is educated with a university degree, but he’s one of those educated people who learned whatever pragmatic, technical skills he needed to learn for a certain degree or a certain type of job, but never became any kind of a critical thinker. He’s the type of person whose life is guided by plenty of “that’s the way it is,” “that’s just the way our people do things” sort of principles, where’s it’s all about fitting in with the culture in which he was raised—however monstrous in certain respects—and not about any kind of independent thinking, doubting, questioning, or recognizing that other cultures might have some worthwhile ideas too.

Some people assume that terrorists are generally people who have been brutalized by oppressed backgrounds of extreme suffering and privation, and are puzzled how often they turn out to be reasonably educated, middle class, etc. relative to most people in their society. Not to be too melodramatic about it, but this is the kind of guy it wouldn’t shock me if he ended up a terrorist.

He’s arrogant, a black-and-white thinker, authoritarian, and convinced that even if he personally hasn’t had a horrible life, his people collectively are oppressed underdogs entitled to be free of the oppression if not on top themselves.

There’s also something a little off about him even beyond that, like in the way when he is with his mother, he regresses into some kind of pseudo-infant state where he curls up in a ball with his head in her lap and mews pitifully.

Sattouf’s mother is more of a cipher. Clearly she was not as imposing a figure to him as his father in his early childhood and so is not nearly as prominent in his memories.

I suppose if I had to guess what sort of woman in a First World country would marry an immigrant from a frankly quite backward patriarchal culture and allow him to dominate her, I would think it would be someone with low dating market value. But my sense from how she’s drawn and what is said about her is that she is an educated, thin, reasonably attractive blonde, from an at least somewhat privileged background, and without a past of great trauma, so likely somewhere between middling and high dating market value.

She gets a little dig in at her husband here and there, but for the most part she seems to be a meek sort who readily acquiesces to his assumption that the man calls the shots in the family. She doesn’t seem to raise much of an objection to following along to whatever godawful place he picks next to live. It’s all about his career, living close to his family, etc., not about her.

One thing that wasn’t clear to me—and maybe it wasn’t clear to Sattouf at that age—is the nature of the school or preschool he was in during one of their brief periods back in France. From his descriptions of his classmates and their behavior, it sounds as though all or most of them had some kind of handicap or learning disability. Was it a “special” school in that sense? I don’t get the impression anything like that was suspected of the young Sattouf himself, like that he might need to be in such a school. If anything he seems to have been regarded as unusually bright. His drawing skills in particular had already been noticed and remarked upon at that early stage of his life.

But the bulk of the book takes place in Libya and Syria, and frankly the Arabs are painted as hopelessly backwards folks.

Not that there aren’t occasional signs of warmth, mostly based on family ties. And I suppose some of the women are good-hearted, in a simpleton kind of way.

Mostly, though, they manifest the worst aspects of Sattouf’s father. They blindly follow tradition and Islam—or at least give them lip service and try to keep their behavior superficially consistent with them—seemingly out of no deep conviction beyond not wanting to deal with the consequences of being out of step with their group, they are brutally patriarchal, and they are hatefully anti-Semitic. (And they smell bad and eat weird food, but little Sattouf experiences these as more positive things.)

In Syria, when Sattouf plays with little plastic army men with other little kids, he discovers that whereas all the Arab or Syrian soldiers are positioned in conventional army man ways—lying on their stomach pointing a rifle, peering into the distance through binoculars, advancing forward with a bayonet, whatever—all the Israeli soldiers are doing loser things or treacherous things, like making a gesture of surrender while surreptitiously concealing a knife behind their back.

Sattouf himself is often mistaken for a Jew, with predictable consequences. Most Arabs can’t make sense of his flamboyantly blonde hair, except to see it vaguely as a mark of being a non-Arab, which in turn means Jew, which then means someone they can and should vent their hatred on. A couple of neighbor kids in Syria his age or slightly older (relatives of his, but then almost everyone in this town is related) are especially diligent about fulfilling their duty to oppose their dreadful enemy Jews by harassing, bullying, cursing, and roughing up young Sattouf at every opportunity.

I have to mention, though, probably the weirdest thing in the whole book is the Libyan housing policy under Gaddafi.

There are for the most part no private property rights when it comes to dwellings (though I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions for those at the top). Houses and apartments are never unoccupied more than very briefly because the rule is that anyone may move into any such empty place.

When Sattouf’s family arrives in Libya, they are taken to a house that has been set aside for them to live. But almost immediately they lose it, because the first time they leave, upon returning they discover all their stuff piled up outside and someone else living there. They are informed that there is nothing they can do about this, as the house became fair game as soon as none of them remained in it.

So basically you can never all be outside your house or apartment at the same time (which, for one thing, means living alone is basically impossible, as you could never leave at all). It is illegal to lock your doors. (You may latch them from the inside when you are there, but you can’t lock them and go out.)

It reads like a Monty Python sketch, always having to leave one person behind so you don’t lose your house. And having people regularly peeking in your doors and windows looking for an empty place to live, and having to call to them, “No, no, there’s someone in here!”

The Arab of the Future is funny, disturbing, insightful, informative, and wholly entertaining. I look forward to the later volumes.


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