Riad Sattouf; Trans. Sam Taylor

The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf, translated by Sam Taylor, is Sattouf’s memoir in the form of a graphic novel. This first book in the trilogy describes Sattouf’s early childhood in France, Libya, and Syria. It opens when he is two years old and concludes when he is the ripe old age of six.

Born of a French mother and Syrian father, Sattouf experiences life in France, in Gaddafi’s Libya, and in Hafez Al-Assad’s Syria. He describes the sights, smells, sounds, and events with unflinching honesty and innocence, without judgement, and through the unfiltered perception and inquisitiveness of a child. And that is what makes this graphic memoir so compelling because what Sattouf witnesses and describes so innocently can cause one to recoil in horror.

Educated in France where he met his future wife, Sattouf’s father takes a job as an associate professor in Libya. While there, Riad learns that in Gaddafi’s Libya homes are free and their doors cannot be locked. He also learns homes are a free-for all in which a family outing can result in the loss of one’s home since even a temporarily vacant home is considered available for occupation by strangers. Food is in short supply; poverty is rampant; and the whole country looks as if it is under construction.

From Libya, Riad’s father moves his family to Syria to be closer to relatives. Riad’s blond hair attracts admiration from some and ridicule from others. He is bullied mercilessly and labeled a Jew by neighborhood street gangs, later revealed to be his cousins. He witnesses horrifying acts of cruelty to animals; child abuse; gender, racial, and religious discrimination; othering; and violence. A crumbling infrastructure and a stifling atmosphere permeated with pollution and the smell of raw sewage rounds up his experience in Syria. The novel concludes with the family returning to Syria after spending their summer vacation in France.

As a former contributor to the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, Sattouf is well versed in satire. Because he speaks through the innocent voice of a child in the novel, his narrative is laced with irony and satire. The young Riad is an unreliable narrator who does not comprehend the import of his words. He idolizes his father who, in actuality, is a conflicted individual with a distorted self-image and delusional visions of reality. His mother is portrayed as a voiceless non-entity. The poverty, the stench, the bizarre behavior of his relatives, the abuse, and the bullying are all described through the eye of a naïve child trying to make sense of bewildering situations. The observations are authentic, unfiltered, and presented with unabashed honesty.

Just as is the case with the text, Sattouf’s illustrations are expressive and exaggerate the predominant quality of a person’s features and/or surroundings. He is a skilled cartoonist and a skilled story teller with an ability to expose the disturbing elements, the poverty, the corruption, and the chaos of Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria as seen through the eyes of innocence. But while the novel highlights some traditional Muslim behaviors, it bears remembering that many of these behaviors are taken out of context, grossly exaggerated, and do not reflect Muslim behavior or attitudes either then or now.

Recommended with reservations.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review