Reviewed by Yago Cura
I was in the fifth grade when Reagan dispatched a squadron of F-11’s to bomb targets in Libya in retaliation for a bombing at a discotheque in Berlin that had killed several servicemen. That day in 1986, in fifth grade after-school care at Winston Park Elementary School in Miami, my friends and I celebrated our Army’s victory over their Army as if we had participated. It was even rumored that one of our missiles had killed one of Gadaffi’s daughters; we thought this a pretty lethal “burn.” The cool with which adults talked about this event led us to believe that it was something we could use in our interactions. During our daily football scrum, where there always seemed to be a visiting team and a home team, the visiting team would inevitably be known as the Libyans, the Libyan Air Force, or Gadaffi et al, while the home team remained the Reagans, the Air Force, or just, the Bombers.
So, the first thing that drew me to Sattouf’s “graphic memoir” was the belief that I might get a peek over the curtain of what that event was like in Libya. Sattouf’s memoir is a robust opus, an intimate work ripped from the Memorex of the cartoonist’s migrations between France, Libya and Syria (the subtitle reads, “A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984). As a preciously precocious child with “long, thick, silky platinum-blonde hair” and [a] “refined and delicate” aura, you can imagine he’d be the butt of many jokes. Naturally, the first obstacle posited by Sattouf, the graphic memoirist, is whether or not Sattouf, the narrator, is to be trusted. Sattouf’s narrator is a child, and that should make the reader take pause. In other words, should the first words bubbled by our narrator, “My name is Riad. In 1980, I was two years old and I was perfect,” prove prophetic or serve to propel Sattouf’s story?
The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984: A Graphic Memoir
by Riad Sattouf
Translated by Sam Taylor
Metropolitan Books (October 20, 2015)
160 pages, paperback
The epigraph on the cover of Chapter 1 depicts the narrator sitting in his father’s (Abdul Razak) palm a-la-Simpsons (they’re mustard yellow color, etc.). Arab of the Future is voluminous; it exerts its own chromatic logic that thrives slightly outside the concept of chapters. The colors used to depict one chapter bleed into another chapter, making the reader feel that the story is larger than the vessel used to tell it. For example, as the story starts, Sattouf is a two year old enfant in Paris, the golden-haired babe of Clementine and Abdul Razak. The palette in all the panels is blue; the shadow, background, depth all virtually the same shade of royal blue. Sattouf’s parents are both students at the Sorbonne in the Paris of 1971; Abdula of poor Syrian-Sunni stock, is a doctorate student working on his “thesis on modern history”; Clementine is a student from Brittany. Eventually they get married and she gives birth to Sattouf. After Abdul finishes his studies at the Sorbonne, he applies to several colleges including the University of Tripoli, where he receives an assistant professorship.
Early on in Chapter 1, without alerting the reader at all, the color scheme changes from royal blue to gold to symbolize Sattouf’s immigration from France to Libya. Here is where the reader first takes notice of Sattouf (the graphic memoirist’s) gift for telling a story as he draws a map of the Mediterranean Sea to “move the color” of his story forward and show the geography of the move his family made.
This graphic memoir is not only a study in the things we remember, it also works as a flow chart for the trials of an individual forced to reckon with his hybridity. Sattouf is never Arab enough, and since he misses out on the quotidian culture of growing up in France, he is equally never French enough. Instead of bingeing on French cartoons, Sattoud expounds on the merits of Libyan TV which runs episodes of “a Japanese series called ‘Specterman’. The hero was a robot that defended the earth against the evil schemes of Dr. Gori.” But, this memoir is more than a comic strip about the hardships of fitting in, it also works as the story of an artist coming to grips with his gift, a talent that allows him to draw a “Santa Pompidou” (George Pompidou in a Santa get up) and sculpt a well-proportioned bull in kindergarten class. From the biography on the book’s jacket we discover that Sattouf is a former contributor to Charlie Hebdo and a current contributor to l’Obs and also a filmmaker credited with The French Kissers and Jacky in the Women’s Kingdom.
In other words, Sattouf is no neophyte storyteller. As the exposition unfolds, we see Sattouf is reliable yet just un petit, artistic savant of sorts–not a patient in an insane asylum like Oskar Matzerath of The Tin Drum, or prone to the creamy lies of infancy like Dicken’s David Copperfield–no, we see Sattouf as a practitioner of the Bildungsroman, or those types of novels which deal with the spiritual formation of one’s central processing unit (self/ser). But, it’s hard, at first, to say how much of what Sattouf draws is beyond suspicion, and that is more than half the fun of reading this color-coded diode of the Exile of Memory, or perhaps because of the way Sattouf blends in and out of the societies in which he will find himself, a Memorial to Exile(s). Sattouf, the graphic memoirist, turns the eye inward, and his formation as an “Arab of the Future” echoes Pan-African ideas one might find in Gadaffi’s Little Green Book, or discussed by Sattouf’s irascible Syrian father who just thinks the world of Gadaffi and Assad, although History has unequivocally turned both into monsters.
That is not to say little Sattouf is not a little étrange. Sattouf forges his own cosmology in which
George Brassens, the famous French singer, is the face of God, but also one in which his Arab nationalist father is “fantastic” despite being in favor of the death penalty because “sometimes you have to execute dangerous people before they execute you.” After a two year sojourn in Libya where Sattouf’s father teaches at the University of Tripoli, Sattouf and his mother return to France. At this point in the memoir, the color in the panels goes back to royal blue until well into Chapter 3, when the panels go from royal blue to rose. It’s all very subtle, so if you blink you’ll miss it, but make no mistake, Sattouf colors the panels according to the spectrum of the home he is memorializing. Blue stands for France. Red is Syria. And, yellow, yellow is Libya. The meaning of home changes as the culture in the country changes to fit the definition of home. While it is true that children seek stability, the instability of Sattouf’s early childhood provides ample opportunity for Sattouf to address the nuanced difference between a house and a home.
Late in chapter 1, Sattouf’s mother becomes pregnant again, and the reader is able to deduce that is the reason that Sattouf and his mother have returned to France. Sattouf’s father visits months later, and after the birth, relocates the family this time to Damascus. Sattouf’s father is Syrian, so in many ways his return is a homecoming for the boy that left his village to attend the Sorbonne; it should be a hero’s welcome, but is less than a pauper’s return when you factor in an inconsiderate older brother who is clearly in control of the family’s finances. The homecoming turns out to be more acidic than used coffee grounds for Sattouf’s father, which means little Riad has to learn to get along with his countless Syrian cousins, many of whom resent him because he doesn’t necessarily look Syrian with his “golden hair” and super-fair complexion. And this is where it gets good, this is where the reader begins to believe Sattouf’s life is somehow extraordinary, or at least a yarn worth spinning.
Chapter 3 is where Sattouf spends by far most of his time reminiscing, and this chapter takes up the bulk of his graphic memoir. The visual epigraph, or tableau on the cover, depicts Sattouf running towards a gaggle of his cousins who are brawling while five women in burkas watch the melee. As the chapter begins, everything is royal blue, but as the plane lands and Sattouf and his family have to deplane and deal with Syrian Customs, everything goes red. Even entering Syria for a Syrian is tricky work as Sattouf’s father is held up by an overzealous Customs agent who he has to coax with a little mordida. While they are walking to a cab, Clementine asks Abdul what the hold up was and he says, “Oh nothing…He wanted to check whether I’d done my military service…since I haven’t been to Syria in 17 years…But I gave him a few dollars, and everything’s fine.” And, the reader thinks that’s it, except the father also adds, “I have nothing to fear, until the next time.”
Chapter 3 is where Sattouf learns the hard lessons about what it means to be Syrian, or more importantly what it means to be a super-cute yet despised French kid in a country of Syrian kids. Sattouf’s cousins call him a “Yahudi” (a Jew) because of his golden hair and threaten to kill him when he begins school, but they also inculcate him on what it means to be Syrian. For example, Mohamed and Wael teach him every one of the “basic Syrian insults,” like, “SON OF A DOG!” and more complex ones like “A CURSE ON YOUR FATHER,” which you can only use if you can “beat up the guy you say it to. Because he’ll definitely want to fight you if you say it.” There is also an episode where the Syrian street children in his father’s village of Ter Maaleh kill a puppy and impale him on a pitchfork because “dogs are considered unclean.” Sattouf’s mother gets involved and tries to stop the street kids from hurting the dog anymore to no avail. Without adult supervision, Sattouf has a hard time stopping his little brother from happening upon a nest of cockroach eggs, which, because he is teething, he puts into his mouth.
Graphic novels have come a long way since they were called comic books and regulated by the Comics Code Authority. Back when they were called comic books, they were an integral part of literacy for young readers, especially males, and for many readers represented the only “book” they could stomach reading cover to cover. In my work as a librarian in South Central Los Angeles, I am constantly trying to impress upon the young Latin@s I come in contact with about Latinos USA: A Cartoon History by Ilan Stavans, illustrated by Lalo Alcaraz. And, like most of my yawper-peers in college, I was obligated to read Art Spiegelmen’s Maus (1980) in some low-level History, American Studies, or Lit class as one way of making sense of post-war America. I believe this title might be at home in any public or academic library, but especially ones wanting to create a dialogue about conditions currently in the Middle East. Moreover, any discussion about the Arab Spring could really use the history and schemas of thought presented in Sattouf’s graphic memoir. Last, any library purporting to have a collection which addresses Middle Eastern history, politics, or political movements and East Asian Studies should heavily consider accessioning this title. It might make a symbiotic pairing with Said’s Orientalism or even excerpts from Sir Richard Burton’s autobiography or his translation of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. But, really, this book is really primo real estate for graphic novel geeks, dweebs that chase the next thing in Comics, and your general reader that might want to learn something new about the conflicts in Syria or Libya.