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Thursday 6 October 2016

The Arab of the Future (L’Arabe du Futur), Volumes 1 and 2 of a Graphic Memoir by Riad Satouff, 10* out of 10

The Arab of the Future tells of an unusual childhood in the Middle East of the 1980s told in the form of a graphic memoir. Riad Sattouf’s voice is original and unique; deceptively simple, his observations are deep, intelligent, often funny and at times very moving.  I read the first two volumes  in one sitting.

Riad Sattouf grows up in the 1970s and 80s, the son of a Syrian University professor and a French mother. His father has risen from very modest beginnings in a small village near Homs in Syria. He is a pan-Arabist, who fervently believes that Syrians are best, that Arabs on the whole will throw off the shackles of Imperialism and demonstrate their superiority to the West. If they haven’t done so already, it is of course due to a global conspiracy perpetrated by the Jews. Moreover, he is convinced that despite of his humble origins he will one day become respected, successful and very rich and that his son will be the epitome of the new Arab man, the eponymous “Arab of the Future”.

Riad’s mother is Breton, the daughter of French civil servants. She believes in the virtues of French values liberté, egalité, fraternité and laïcité. The last of these being the untranslatable concept of how the French think any civilised state should organise the place of religion in society. Unfortunately they are still struggling to find a single other country that might agree with them. At the grassroots level French values translate into the civil servant's right to job security, retirement around the age of 55 with a good pension, and generally enjoying a good life. All of these are accessible to Riad’s maternal grandmother, but Riad’s mother has none of these in prospect. She is waiting rather patiently for her husband to become as successful and wealthy as he always claims he will soon be. 

Riad born in France with an abundant mane of gorgeous blond hair, enjoys that adults find him cute and irresistible. At a very young age he moves with his family to Libya and then Syria and returns to France occasionally to visit his grandmother on vacation. Very early on his talent for drawing what he sees around him becomes evident. And while to his great chagrin sometime in later life his gorgeous blond hair will turn dark, his great sense of being able to represent in annotated drawings what he sees, feels and hears never leaves him. 

As a result, readers of volume 1 and 2 get a treat of learning about France, Libya and Syria in the early through the eyes of a child that sees what is going on around him and tries to interpret it with the help of his father's and mother's views as they were presented to a child. For instance, from the moment he hears his mother refer to France’s iconic chanson singer George Brassens as “a God, whenever, God is mentioned the grey-haired moustachioed face of Brassens appears in Riad’s imagination.

The first two volumes of Riad Sattouf’s autobiography are deceptively simple in drawings, dialogue and annotation. Riad's curiosity and acute observation get under the reader's shield of preconceptions. He "draws us in", literally,  to hear his story and allows us to take the perspective of a little child as we consider the complicated, confusing and sometimes downright crazy world full of contradictions in which he finds himself. Riad will somehow have to integrate all this into what we now refer to as his identity. Thanks to his talent and sense of observation, and mainly due to his being a small child he does this naturally and playfully. Imperceptibly he makes the reader adopt his perspective, and a highly rewarding experience this is, too. 

Now in his 40s, and acutely feeling the irretrievable loss of cute infantile blondness, Satouff’s graphic autobiography gives the reader a ringside seat to an extra-ordinary multicultural childhood. Perspective, simplicity and humour combine to give us the sounds, sights and feel of the places the young Riad lives at and the institutions he experiences and tries to make sense of. 

The deservedly multi-prize-winning "Arab of the Future" is in fact an “unputdownable” work of child psychology, sociology and human geography rolled into one -  without any jargon and absolutely no boring bits. I cannot wait to see the future volumes of the autobiography by this supremely talented observer of life, man and nature. Highly recommended!

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