The Arab of the Future

This was my review for the Guardian of Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir.araboffuture

The graphic novel has proved itself over and over. It already has its classical canon: Spiegelman on the Holocaust, Satrapi on girlhood in Islamist Iran, and (perhaps most accomplished of all) Joe Sacco’s ‘Footnotes in Gaza’, a work of detailed and self-reflexive history. Edging towards this company comes Riad Sattouf’s ‘The Arab of the Future’, a childhood memoir of tyranny.

Little Riad’s mother, Clementine, is French. His father, Abdul-Razak, is Syrian. They meet at the Sorbonne, where Abdul-Razak is studying a doctorate in history. Those with Arab fathers will recognise the prestige value of the title ‘doctoor’. But Abdul-Razak is more ambitious. He really wants to be a president. Studying abroad at least allows him to avoid military service. “I want to give orders, not take them,” he says. When humiliated, he sniffs and rubs his nose.

Abdul-Razak is a pan-Arabist who believes the people (“stupid filthy Arab retards!”) must be educated out of religious dogma. For reasons of both vanity and ideology he turns down an Oxford teaching post for one in Libya. The family takes up residence in a flat which doesn’t have a lock, because Qaddafi has ‘abolished private property’. Little Riad sees Libya all yellow, its unfinished buildings already crumbling. He sings the Leader’s speeches with kids in the stairwell and queues with his mother for food (only eggs one week, just bananas the next).

When Qaddafi decrees that all must change jobs, teachers becoming farmers and vice versa, the family leaves, via France, for Syria, another country which “seemed to be under construction”. A disturbed Abdul-Razak has already absorbed news of the 1982 massacre in Hama. Now one dictator’s portraits are replaced by another’s. The bribery starts in the arrival hall.

Then to the ancestral village outside Homs, which is sexually segregated, afflicted by power cuts, soundtracked by howling dogs and calls to prayer. Riad’s weathered grandmother licks specks from children’s eyeballs. It’s this sort of detail, drawn with the cartoon clarity of childhood perception, which makes the book such a success.

The village boys, fascinated by Riad’s European toys, kick a puppy about for fun. Mokhtar and Anas, his bullying cousins (Riad is related to everyone in the village) call him Yahudi (Jew) on account of his blonde shock of hair.

Riad’s father – though by no means a hateful character – is the story’s foremost authoritarian, incapable of admitting ignorance or error, guilty of sectarianism, anti-black racism, misogyny and superstition (these last two intertwined). He suffers the inferiority/ superiority complex of the rapidly upwardly mobile, and he believes in strong men – Qaddafi, Saddam, Hafez al-Assad – against the evidence of their depredations. All these are faults typical of his Arab generation.

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On Boston’s Radio Opensource

This was a strange experience. We were told in a long pre-interview that the actual interview would be just us (Leila and I), and would be focused on civil society in Syria. On the day, however, they brought in LRB-contributor Hugh Roberts and American commentator Jeffrey Sachs, so the conversation became enwebbed in a US-centric alternate reality. The host is Chris Lydon. Listen to it here.

Making Sense of Syria: Robin Yassin-Kassab and Samer Abboud in Dialogue

Robin-Sammer
Robin Yassin-Kassab (seated) and Samer Abboud (at podium)

On March 29, the Gandhian Forum for Peace & Justice at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey hosted this event with Robin Yassin-Kassab (co-editor of PULSE and co-author, with Leila Al-Shami, of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War) and Samer Abboud (Associate Professor of Historical and Political Studies at Arcadia University and author of Syria). Watch the video here.

This was the kick-off event in the North American book tour for Burning Country.

 

Binet, Hitler and Putin

Putin1This (slightly subedited) was first published at the New Arab/ al-araby al-jadeed.

I’ve just finished “HHhH”, an excellent ‘non-fiction novel’ by the French writer Laurent Binet. It tells the true story of Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of top Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich co-ordinated by the Czechoslovak resistance and the British government.

In the Nazi surveillance agency, the SS, Heydrich was second in command only to Heinrich Himmler (or perhaps he was even more important than his boss – “HHhH” is the German acronym for ‘Himmler’s Brain is Called Heydrich’). He was the highest official in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, and the chief architect of the ‘final solution’ for Europe’s Jews – the Holocaust.

The larger background to the drama of the assassination is Britain and France’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia, the final layer in these states’ disastrous appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.

Germany had been defeated in World War One. The post-war settlement forced Germany to pay enormous reparations to the victors. This national humiliation was immediately followed by economic collapse and social disorder. Hitler emerged from this context, a strong leader promising to restore German order and pride, identifying enemies domestic and foreign, and lamenting the scattering of the German people across various borders.

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