The Arab of the Future, Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir of growing up between the Middle East and France, has caught some attention here in the United States. In France it has almost instantly entered a certain canon. The reasons why are complex.
Sattouf was born in the late 1970s to a Syrian father and a French mother who met as students in Paris. When he was two they moved to Libya where his father had been offered a job as a professor. A couple a years later they moved to Syria and settled near his father’s family. Sattouf also spent stretches of time in France during his childhood. He has been living in France permanently since his teenage.
The memoir comes in several installments. The fifth and last one is yet to be published. The title refers to Sattouf’s father’s dream of his son becoming an educated, worldly Arab, free of bigotry and full of agency. Do I need to say it is deeply ironical? As the story progresses it is clear the dream won’t come true, at least not at all in the way Sattouf’s father had imagined.
The Arab of the Future tells a complex story with a deceptively simple graphic style and an amazing richness of detail. Sattouf chooses to tell it from his perspective as a child, an extremely observant child who soon grows aware of cracks and discordances in Arab societies (primarily Hafez al-Assad’s Syria where he spent most of his childhood) and in his own family without theorizing what he sees.
What he sees: poverty, cracks in buildings, regular power outages, bribes, prejudice, clueless teachers, brutal children’s games, privileged happy few, absurd rules, and official slogans that have nothing to do with the reality around him. The success of his memoir in France is certainly due in part to his willingness to expose these truths bluntly, with his personal brand of gallows humor, in a way that would probably be considered border line racist if he was not an Arab himself.
For all practical purposes Sattouf is a French citizen but because of his multicultural background he is at liberty of giving a damning account of life in Libya and Syria in the 1980s and of how people would conform with their dysfunctional societies. I believe that many liberal French, including myself probably, have enjoyed The Arab of the Future as a guilty pleasure: here is someone who can and will tell it like it is and we can safely listen to him because he does not have a political agenda — or does he?
What he does not describe, however, is how people endured the hardship together and made their life meaningful, how they were connected. I don’t think it is because this aspect of things did not exist. I believe it exists to some extent in every society. I believe it is missing in the memoir because Sattouf and his family were outsiders themselves. He was a blond little boy who spoke French at home. His multicultural family was both isolated and isolating. This disconnection lead him to observe things from a distance, with an acute sense of not belonging.
What strikes me even more about the memoir is how Sattouf looks at his parents, without much indulgence but with some degree of empathy. They start off as young idealists but they evolve in starkly different directions. His mother uprooted, lonely, overwhelmed with the lack of material comfort, deeply unhappy. His father with intellectual ambitions but not much intellectual, or emotional, honesty, sticking with his narratives even when they are contradicted by reality and his own actions.
Sattouf’s love for his parents is not questionable, I think, but it is anything but blind. As a parent myself, I wonder how they felt when they first read the memoir… There is disturbingly little evidence for example of their trying to bring him comfort as he is going through some pretty harsh experiences. They pay attention to him and talk to him (especially his father) but there is not much warmth and sense of safety transpiring in the book and it is possible Sattouf’s parents did not find that accurate or fair.
Another thing I admire in The Arab of the Future is Sattouf’s simple yet brilliant idea to use color to distinguish his memories of the different countries he lived in as a child. France is blue; Libya, yellow; and Syria, red. It is a very powerful way to translate how specific and separate these worlds are in his mind and in his sensations as he recalls them. It also doubles as a deft substitute for hearing different languages depending on where Sattouf is.
The Arab of the Future is a book that speaks disturbingly to the modern multicultural experience, not least because of the counterpoint French episodes in the memoir, where Sattouf’s critical mind remains very much awake, as you would expect. It is at once a very pleasurable and unsettling read. One that leaves you with more questions than answers. The work is neither comfortable nor unproblematic, but it brings a deeply personal, textured perspective that should not be missed out.