The Future of the Arab

The Future of the Arab

Riad Sattouf’s biting graphic memoir ignores the big picture of politics in the Middle East and focuses instead on daily life and the imposition of authority through violence.


It’s 1983, and a family has landed at the Damascus airport. The father, who has avoided military service, bribes his way into the country. Accompanying him are his foreign wife and small blond son. Outside the airport, Syria assails them. A scrum of screaming cab drivers fights over the startled new arrivals. Cabbies abandon the brawl and compose themselves on the sidelines, combing their hair and smoking cigarettes, until the last one left shouting—and close to keeling over from his exertions—hustles the family into his taxi. He ashes his cigarettes through the moving vehicle’s missing floorboard.

This scene of homecoming and culture shock falls about halfway through the first volume of The Arab of the Future, a graphic memoir by the French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf. The book delivers a vision of childhood that is both extreme and familiar: its terrors and painful revelations, the utter mystery and absolute power of adults, the sensory details that lodge forever in the memory. But Sattouf’s vision is also of the unusual childhood he lived in Moammar El-Gadhafi’s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, as well as in the shadow of his father and his delusions. The Arab of the Future blends a rueful backward glance at the early days of two dictatorships that finally imploded in the Arab Spring and an intimate indictment of the way boys were taught to be men.

Sattouf, who is 37 and lives in Paris, has directed two movies and written dozens of graphic novels, many of them focused on adolescence and sexual losers (one is called Virgin’s Manual, another No Sex in New York). Other work is drawn from life: For one piece, he spent 15 days in an elite French high school. Between 2004 and 2014, Sattouf contributed a weekly comic called “The Secret Life of Youth” to the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Based on scraps of life seen and heard on the streets and subways, it was preoccupied, like much of Sattouf’s work, with observing those moments of cruelty, violence, or strangeness that happen in plain sight but are generally passed over in silence, purposely ignored.

With The Arab of the Future, Sattouf has achieved a new level of recognition. The artist once told Le Monde that he has always wanted to create comics “that could be read by people who don’t usually read comics.” With his latest autobiographical work, he has succeeded: The memoir of his peculiar childhood is a literary phenomenon in France. Two volumes of a projected four-part series have been published so far; the first won France’s top prize for a graphic novel last year, and Sattouf has been acclaimed as an original talent and a sharp storyteller.

Recently published in an English translation by Sam Taylor, the first volume spans just six years, from 1978 to 1984. The narrator’s mother, Clementine, and his father, Abdel-Razaq, meet in Paris at the cafeteria of the Sorbonne. The gentle Clementine is from Brittany; the bumbling and eager Abdel-Razaq is from a small Sunni village outside Homs. One of the first members of his family to have pursued an education, he has won a scholarship to earn a doctorate in history.

Upon graduating, Abdel-Razaq declines a post at Oxford, deciding instead to take a job at one of the new universities that Gadhafi has established in Libya. By this time, Clementine has abandoned her studies, the two have married, and their son Riad is a toddler. “My father believed in pan-Arabism. He was obsessed with education for the Arabs. He thought Arab men had to educate themselves to escape from religious dogma,” explains the adult narrator, who otherwise keeps his commentary to a minimum. Sattouf adds little context and no foreshadowing to the tale; he has said that he tried to follow only the trail of his memories. Tripoli is seen from the vantage point of a child whose world consists largely of the hallways and gardens of a housing complex for foreigners. Some of his most unforgettable excursions involve standing in a heaving line with his father to collect government-issued rations of bananas and Tang.

The young Riad’s world still operates on dream logic, so Gadhafi’s cult of personality and radical policies don’t strike him as strange. The colonel seems to be permanently present on TV. Because private property has been outlawed, residences are best kept continuously occupied, as Riad’s parents discover when they return from a walk to find their university housing occupied by squatters. There are other surreal losses: Clementine resigns from a job as a newscaster after bursting into hysterical laughter while reading Gadhafi’s threats to assassinate President Reagan. The dictator’s suggestion that Libyans should start exchanging jobs is one reason the family finally leaves. After a sojourn in France and the birth of Riad’s brother, Abdel-Razaq seizes a chance to return to Syria by taking a new job at the University of Homs.

By this point Riad is an increasingly observant child, but his attention is almost always drawn to the grotesque and the flawed: the cracks in new but poorly built houses, the smell of sweat, the hypocrisies and humiliations that underlie the seemingly cordial family and village politics. Upon arriving in his hometown, the village of Ter Maaleh, Abdel-Razaq discovers that his beloved older brother has sold most of the family’s land in his absence. The nightmare doesn’t end there. The village is bigoted, violent, backward; its streets are strewn with garbage and excrement, its children wander in a state of feral excitation (at one point they lynch a puppy). At family gatherings, women cook and serve the food, then sit in a separate room waiting to eat leftovers. Riad’s cousins attack him and call him a “Jew,” the first word he learns in Syrian Arabic. When the boys play with plastic toy soldiers, there are two sets: the valiant Syrians and the villainous Israelis, who raise flags of surrender while holding daggers behind their backs. In the school courtyard, the most popular game is war with Israel. “I tried to be the most aggressive towards the Jews to prove I wasn’t one,” says Sattouf.

* * *

The Arab of the Future is drawn in a simple, confident, expressive style. A caricaturist’s hand animates faces distorted by fear, anger, or rage. As the plot moves between Libya, France, and Syria, each country is given its own wash of color: yellow, blue, or red. It’s when the family lands in the red zone that the story also arrives at its emotional center.

Sattouf has said in interviews that it was the Syrian uprising, and his experience helping the Syrian side of his family emigrate to France in 2011, that prompted him to write The Arab of the Future. “Part of me still finds it so unfair that they had to live that way,” he said of his relatives, looking shy and uncomfortable on one of France’s main TV talk shows. “I have the feeling that if I don’t tell this story, no one will ever tell how it really was.”

While The Arab of the Future has won many accolades, its depiction of a relentlessly unpleasant rural Syrian setting, offered with minimal social and political context, has drawn sharp criticism. The scholar Laurent Bonnefoy has argued on the website Orient XXI that the narrator’s seemingly naive gaze serves to reinforce racist stereotypes about Arabs. The book presents “Arab societies that are intrinsically sick and just as Western readers generally imagine them,” Bonnefoy writes. “A world appears whose pathologies are expected and supposedly well-known: the Arab is dirty…violent, backwards, always stupid, vulgar, bigoted and of course…anti-Semitic.”

I, too, was uncomfortable with the almost bestial depiction of the residents of Ter Maaleh. (Sattouf portrays his sojourns back in France with the same unflattering sensibility, but they are less vivid and troubling.) When Sattouf lived there in the 1980s, Syria was an unstable country, exhausted by a succession of coups and shaken by two wars with Israel. Hafez al-Assad’s regime had just quashed a domestic revolt, ending several years of civil unrest by sending the army to flatten the city of Hama (25 miles from the Sattoufs’ village) and kill at least 10,000 of its inhabitants. It is this invisible domestic front that best explains the strident militarization of society.

The French scholar Michel Seurat also lived in Syria in the early 1980s and wrote with passionate intelligence about the Assad regime. Seurat was kidnapped and killed in Beirut in 1986 by the Islamic Jihad Organization. In his writings, he applied the theories of the medieval sociologist Ibn Khaldun, who observed the cyclical capture of urban centers by rural tribes, to explain how the Alawites—despite being a despised minority—managed to seize political power in Syria. Seurat drew on the Khaldunian concept of asabiyya, which is about tribal solidarity or esprit de corps. Assad turned the military and the police into Alawite bastions, but to govern he needed a political rhetoric, however disingenuous, and so he cast his regime as the vanguard of Arab resistance to foreign intervention. This rhetoric, a blend of strident anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism, filters all the way down to the street games of rural boys and is the basis of the regime’s self-legitimation.

Sattouf ignores this big picture, focusing instead on daily life and the imposition of authority through violence. The little boys in his book brandish weapons at their mothers but sit in terrified silence when their fathers, the administrators of terrible beatings, come home. Sattouf sees parallels between the relationship to one’s father and to the “father” of one’s nation, whose face looms everywhere, and suggests that the omni­present cult of strength flows from a sense of shame and weakness, whether it’s that of a postcolonial country, a traumatized citizenry, or a terrified child. In this world, there are seemingly only two choices for men: to be weak or to be brutal.

The source of much of the book’s narrative tension is a series of sharp disparities: between what young Riad is trying to understand and what the older Riad and the reader know; between a time when Arab nationalism held allure and promise, and its current hollowed-out state; between a family’s original wholeness and its subsequent splintering (Sattouf’s parents separated; he returned to France with his mother and didn’t visit Syria for many years); between the “Arab of the future” dreamed by young Riad’s father and a successful Parisian cartoonist hung up on his origins and allergic to all forms of nationalism.

Sattouf has said that a “double regard,” or double vision, is integral to his book. It is very much trained on Abdel-Razaq, who is the object of both a child’s admiration and a grown son’s disappointment. Abdel-Razaq is an endearing loser, a man still marked by the extreme poverty and hunger of his childhood and obsessed with acquiring the title of “doctor” and building a “presidential” villa on his plot of land in the village. He wants progress but doesn’t trust democracy, a Western ideal that can’t work in Arab countries, he thinks, whose citizens require a firm hand: “You have to be tough with them. You have to force them to get an education, make them go to school. If they decide for themselves, they do nothing. They’re lazy-ass bigots even though they have the same potential as everyone else.” He venerates education but believes in superstitions and magical apparitions; he doesn’t pray but is embarrassed when young Riad can’t recite the first sura of the Koran; and he lacks the courage to confront his family when they decide, in the devastating conclusion to the second volume, to let an honor killing go unpunished. Sattouf concentrates Abdel-Razaq’s pathos in his habit of always rubbing his nose and staring off into the distance when humiliated; a reader comes to anticipate this signature gesture as much as young Riad does. What’s particularly pathetic about Abdel-Razaq is his admiration for the qualities of macho brutality that he doesn’t possess and is the better for not possessing. In the first two volumes, he’s a much more compelling character than Riad’s mother, who is presented as the reasonable parent who nonetheless acquiesces to her husband’s schemes, her role largely confined to rolling her eyes in the background. In her horrified impotence, Clementine could be a stand-in for the Western reader, indignant but also entertained and mesmerized by this tale of cultural and familial dysfunction.

* * *

Bonnefoy is suspicious of the book’s success given the current climate in France, where a fixation on Muslims and Islam has come to dominate political and intellectual life. After the November 13 attacks in Paris, which were carried out in part by French nationals of Arab origin, Philippe de Villiers, the head of a right-wing party, cast blame on “the laxity and mosque-ization of France.” A high-ranking member of former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s party suggested interning the 4,000 suspected radicals currently under surveillance. Others have called for shutting down Islamic organizations and “radical mosques” and suspending all immigration.

But the concern about France’s Muslim minority dates back to at least 2005, when riots erupted in the banlieues of Paris after two young boys died fleeing the police. The disorder spread across the country and lasted several weeks. Young people largely of immigrant origin torched thousands of cars, vandalized schools, and threw Molotov cocktails at the police. The violence was largely treated as a cultural rather than socioeconomic phenomenon.

The Front National, headed by the charismatic Marine Le Pen, has capitalized on the sense that France is in decline, its identity threatened by immigrants and its millions of citizens of Arab origin (who already face discrimination in the workplace and from the police). The Front did better than ever in the regional elections, held in December, winning 27.8 percent of the vote (against 31.2 percent and 41 percent, respectively, for France’s traditional left- and right-wing parties).

But expressions of concern over the loss of France’s traditional identity are by no means limited to right-wing parties that despise immigrants and the European Union. Not a day goes by without the French media featuring yet another agonized reflection on threats to the country’s laïcité (its particular definition of secularism). Some want to protect it by banning the hijab and even fast-food chains that serve halal meat.

Last year, Michel Houellebecq toyed with such worries in his novel Soumission, which imagines a near future where France elects its first Muslim president and quickly capitulates to the system of religious law known as Sharia. The Algerian writer Boualem Sansal followed suit with 2084: La fin du monde, a novel about an Islamic dystopia; it won the Grand Prix du Roman of the Académie Française.

The attacks last January and November in Paris, and the outpourings of public solidarity and indignation that followed, have both sharpened and muddled the discussion. After each, France’s Muslims were collectively called upon to explain themselves, while commentators across the political spectrum rushed to proclaim the need for Islam to reform itself and for minorities to embrace the values of the Republic. In a column that Sattouf published in Charlie Hebdo right after the January attacks, a young Frenchman of Arab extraction, arguing in heavily accented French on his phone in the street, dismisses the magazine itself (“It’s shit, I don’t give a fuck”) but also conspiracy theories and excuses, insisting on a simple, humane line of argument: “Listen bro, they’re some guys, they drew stuff, that’s it. You don’t kill them for that, that’s it.”

Asking Sattouf to provide the French public with a corrective vision of Arab culture seems an unfair burden to place on the author of one memoir in comic-book form. This sort of tiresome debate surrounds almost any work with Arab roots that is successful in the West: The very fact that a book or film gains an audience makes it suspect. For example, the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud’s novel The Meursault Investigation, which brilliantly plunders, interrogates, and expands upon Camus’s The Stranger, has been faulted by some for its debts to a colonialist literary legacy. It’s a double bind: Arab authors are burdened with the responsibility of representing entire countries, cultures, and religions, then criticized for not representing them “correctly.”

Sattouf has tried to avoid this trap by acting skittish, almost disingenuous, in interviews, deflecting demands that he respond to the situation in Syria or to the status of Arabs in France. In the magazine Jeune Afrique, he explained: “I’m embarrassed when an artist gets engaged in politics; I always find it a bit ridiculous.” In a recent New Yorker profile by Adam Shatz, Sattouf wondered: “If I had written a book about a village in southern Italy or Norway, would I be asked about my vision of the European world?” No, and if Sattouf’s Syrian family had hailed from a cultural and commercial center like Damascus or Aleppo, rather than a poor village—let alone if they had been Kurds or Christians or Alawites—he would have written a different book. This is just one Syrian story, and it is not the author’s fault if his audience reads too much into it. Yet as Shatz points out: “Sattouf didn’t call the book ‘The Boy from Ter Maaleh’; he called it ‘The Arab of the Future.’” The author is well aware of his story’s implications; he just refuses to spell them out.

In the book, the Sunni village that Sattouf’s family hails from is devoid of the posters of Hafez al-Assad that once plastered public spaces in major Syrian cities. Abdel-Razaq’s attitude toward the Alawite president is a mixture of contempt and admiration: Assad isn’t a real Muslim, he tells his son, but look at how cleverly he has seized his chance, putting his community into power and lording it over the Sunni majority: “Now we are their slaves.” When the family goes on vacation to Palmyra, they don’t mention Tadmur, the town’s infamous secret prison where as many as 1,000 inmates—many of them Islamists and political prisoners—were massacred in June 1980 by commandos led by Assad’s brother the day after a failed attempt on the president’s life. As for the Hama massacre of 1980, it is mentioned only once in the first two volumes of The Arab of the Future, and then merely in passing.

Michel Seurat pointed out that the schools and the military were the two institutions that most preoccupied the Assad regime. The ostensible goal of the shrill nationalism inculcated in soldiers and students alike was the creation of modern citizens. It concealed the negation of the state and was designed to break down any form of potential opposition. Much of the second volume chronicles Riad’s years in Syrian public school; with added touches of deep red and green, the palette matches the colors of the Syrian flag. The students—all boys—are subjected to sudden, astounding corporal punishments. The teachers are absolutely unmoved by a sobbing 6-year-old begging not to be beaten (to this day, extreme violence remains a fact in many Arab public schools; it only makes the news when a teacher actually kills a student).

On the occasion of the 1985 presidential referendum, young Riad’s schoolteacher explains that Syria is one of the few countries in the world “to ask the people their opinion.” One must vote for Assad, she explains, with a twisted sort of prescience, because “without him, Syria would destroy itself and we wouldn’t exist anymore.” Assad was re-elected with 100 percent of the vote in a yes/no referendum with no other candidates.

* * *

Despite the horrors of school, the second volume of The Arab of the Future is less dire than the first, its vision more nuanced and varied. There are new and sympathetic characters, like young Riad’s gentle, hardworking deskmate, who smiles through his tears when beaten and whose cough worsens till he disappears one day. And there’s the exhausted village doctor who chases Sattouf’s family down in the rain to indignantly refuse payment. Riad’s nice cousins, Wael and Mohamed, carry on with their well-intentioned and fascinating tutorials on topics such as swear words, religious rituals and superstitions, and attitudes to girls. Thus we learn that “Fuck your mother” is an opening insult, to be thrown around with nonchalance; “A curse on your father” signals a serious escalation; “A curse on your God” is an insult so serious it can only be whispered, and only conceivably aimed at non-Muslims. The cousins, who treat Riad’s unveiled foreign mother with affection and respect, also explain how girls are “impure” and practice yelling at them to get out of their sight. (Far from obliging them, the girls respond with harsh and graphic insults of their own.)

Sattouf describes the pleasure his younger self takes in mastering the Arabic alphabet, and his nervousness and pride in reciting the Koran, even though neither he nor any of the other pupils fully grasp the meaning of the passages they learn. Nonetheless, knowledge of their religion is one of the only fields in which the poor, dirty students who have been relegated to the back of the classroom are able to shine. There is even a lyrical description of the village in springtime: fields of poppies, skies full of swallows, “a good smell of warm grass,” turtles sunning themselves by the river (though Sattouf has to point out that they stick to the far bank, beyond the range of the village boys). The social panorama widens: We see upper-class Syrians, their wealth all the more shocking after the villagers’ destitution, their “modernity” skin-deep and their entitlement flecked with cruelty.

There is something terribly chilling about the 6-year-old son of a powerful man who humiliates Riad near a hotel jungle gym, playing on it while forbidding Riad to join in. Where does a child that age learn to say, “Otherwise I’ll kill you, dog”? It is through personal, resonant scenes like these that Sattouf raises larger questions about the formative years of any child and the unspoken codes of any society. Volume three, Sattouf has said, will chronicle his unhappy adolescence back in France, living in public housing in Brittany. His attentive, unflattering eye will presumably alight on plenty of other cracks and blemishes.

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