This was my review for the Guardian of Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir.
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.
It’s a shame that the cultural and political detail in this otherwise excellent book is sometimes oversimplified or plain wrong. Errors in transliterated Syrian Arabic are forgiven, as these captions anyway signal Riad’s incomprehension of the language. And some may be the translator’s fault: it’s the River Orontes in English, not ‘Oronte’.
The grimness of the depiction, added to the fact that Sattouf once contributed to Charlie Hebdo, might prompt accusations of orientalism, but this is equal opportunity critique. Riad’s French grandfather is depicted as a homophobic lecher. France may be richer, but its children are (hilariously) more self-absorbed. The child Riad finds French faces more expressive. The implication is that Syrian faces are closed by various forms of repression.
‘The Arab of the Future’ is an authentic, emotionally honest story, and much more useful background reading to present events than a romanticised account of cosmopolitan bourgeois Damascus. Only in the plane leaving does Riad encounter rich Syrians, glittering, pushy, barking, “Do you know who I am?”
Sattouf’s book investigates authoritarianism as a cultural problem. Pointing past airborne plastic bags to a half-destroyed sugar refinery, Abdul-Razak declares, “This was a forest when I was young. Now it’s the modern world.” This is an image of the top-down ‘development’ that caused the current collapse, the forced modernity that ended in atavism.
The title’s double meaning refers first, we presume, to little Riad, and second to the heroic projections of Arab nationalism. Perhaps it bears another meaning too – a hint at what the constrained environment of the 70s and 80s would produce: the Islamist or democratic revolutionaries of today.
“It’s different with Arabs,” opines Abdul-Razak, near the end. “You have to be tough with them. You have to force them to get an education … If they decide for themselves they do nothing … When the Arabs are educated, they’ll free themselves from the old dictators.”
“And what will they get instead?” asks Clementine, whose gaze of mild disapproval constantly highlights her husband’s idiocies. “Young dictators?”
It’s the question of our times. Will old habits of thought defeat the new? Sattouf promises us a further volume.