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.