The award-winning artist Riad Sattouf channels his younger self in the first volume of The Arab of the Future. Appearing for the first time in English, Sattouf takes the reader along with him on a journey to Libya and Syria at the whims of his father during the 1970s and 1980s. His father’s ambitions and somewhat misguided search for wealth lead him to take his family to seek better pastures in the tumultuous Middle East, where Gaddafi has installed himself as leader in Libya, and Syria’s Muslim faith is cause for his father’s soul searching. Presented in an illustrated style similar to Matt Groening’s early work, The Arab of the Future is a good primer to 20th century Middle Eastern politics as seen through the eyes of a child.
Riad is not like other Arab boys. Because of his parents’ lineage, he has long and flowing blond hair and is the darling of every adult who crosses his path. A precocious lad, he is blissfully unaware of his father’s growing adoration of Muammar Gaddafi after the 1969 coup d’etat against King Idris I. By way of Gaddafi’s “Green Book”, Riad’s father, Abdel-Razak Sattouf, is enchanted by Libya’s Socialist leanings and gets a job in the country as a university teacher. Although Riad is too young to truly grasp what is going on in the world around him, Riad’s father puts on a brave face when Libya doesn’t meet his expectations, especially when half finished homes are literally up for grabs. Things aren’t much better when they eventually move to Syria, where the strict Muslim faith and culture is a curiosity to Riad. His father bears the brunt of resentment amongst his cousins. Riad and his mother seem to take their transitions and cultural adjustments in stride; the chapters tend to focus on his father as he suffers embarrassment, slights, and difficulty among his countrymen and kin.
Riad’s father’s ambitions take the Sattouf family from Paris to Libya, Libya to Paris, and Paris to Syria. Riad encounters all sorts of interesting people, many of whom are from his father’s extended family. In Syria, Riad experiences people and situations that make him uncomfortable and unhappy, a stark contrast to his happy-go-lucky times in Libya and Paris. Wherever they travel, there’s an unspoken comparison between the comforts of Parisian society against those of the Middle East. Sattouf presents his world without commentary, a void (intentionally?) to be filled by the reader’s own notions and observations. The graphic novel paints intimate, and telling, portraits of life Libya and Syria that may trigger feelings of culture shock among readers not versed in Middle Eastern culture or the Muslim religion. Because the United States hasn’t experienced unpredictable regime changes, The Arab of the Future can be a tricky read for Americans. There were scenes in Riad’s life that I had a hard time with. Specifically, the torture and death of a small dog by a group of Syrian villagers (the Muslim faith views dogs as unclean). Riad doesn’t react to the scene as much as his mother, who runs screaming from the house to stop the fracas only to be held at bay. Because of my sensitivity towards violence against animals, the scene made me feel angry and upset to the point where I wanted to stop reading.
What also makes The Arab of the Future a little difficult to get through is an overall dryness of the text. Riad’s adventures are presented in a “matter of fact” style of speech presented in text boxes at the top of each panel that serve as Sattouf’s adult voice as he details the circumstances and political backdrop and sheds insight into his family dynamic. I find that Sattouf does a good job with showing, not telling, with his artwork and while it’s important to know the context of the places Riad finds himself in, I often found that Sattouf’s voice gets in the way.
To read The Arab of the Future means opening your mind to a culture and society that may be very different from your own. Otherwise, a closed mind will get in the way of a story about Sattouf’s childhood experiences of living in two very different Middle Eastern countries. Sattouf never casts judgement on his surroundings, preferring to let his father’s ramblings and fervor do that for him.
The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984
by Riad Sattouf
Henry Holt and Company, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: OT