Friday, November 6, 2015

The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir by Riad Sattouf

This memoir in the form of a graphic novel by Riad Sattouf is positively terrifying. It only takes an evening to read, and I can guarantee you will not want to put it down.

A cartoonist and former contributor to Charlie Hebdo, Sattouf now has a weekly column in France’s L’Obs. This graphic memoir is translated from the French by Sam Taylor and published in 2015 by Metropolitan Books, and tells of Sattouf’s early childhood in France, Libya, and Syria.

The memoir is terrifying for what it tells us of the consciousness of a Sunni Arab man and his extended family, as well as the conditions in the late 1970s-early 80's in the cities of Tripoli and Homs. Sattouf engages our sympathies immediately by starting out his descriptions from the eyes of a blond two-year-old, who we might expect to be perplexed wherever he was, being new to the world. But this turns out to be the perfect vehicle for presenting the things he sees, hears, smells, and experiences with a disingenuous honesty, though, I must admit, the consciousness of a child. It is as disarming as it is damning. We laugh and cringe at the same time.

Sattouf is choosing what to tell us about his upbringing with the consciousness of an adult. He shows the peculiarities of early education in France, and Syria. Both have failures, as a system. It’s a wonder we survive at all, but less surprising that we exhibit the flaws we do. He has a finely honed skill for cutting away the extraneous, and revealing the kernel of his experience. He makes it laughable, but at heart, it is also terrifying.

Riad’s Syrian father, Abdul-Razak, is the first of his family to read and is (therefore?) considered a great scholar in Syria. He is sent to study history at the Sorbonne and manages to wed an unworldly French student, Clementine, who is studying in Paris. Clementine is from a small village in Brittany and when they both graduate, Abdul-Razak accepts a position teaching in Tripoli, Libya. You have got to read this to enjoy it. I don’t want to spoil your fun. It sounds just about what you might expect with Qaddafi in charge, only even worse than you could imagine.

The family returns briefly to France, and then pack themselves off to Abdul-Razak’s home village outside of Homs, Syria. By this time Riad has a new dark-haired brother, but his own hair is still blond. He is teased (and beaten up) mercilessly in Homs, where the children harass him with expletives while calling him “Jew.” Conditions of everyday life in late 70's Syria sound positively crushing in this period Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father, was in charge. Riad’s family was Sunni; Assad was Alawhite. Segregation by religion, by sect shouldn’t surprise me, but the extent and result of it is stomach-roiling. Riad’s dear father, Abdul-Razak doesn’t sound more enlightened, for all his education.

I am reminded of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion in which he writes that early childhood inculcation into any religion is one of the most damaging things that can happen to the impressionable mind. One cannot help but agree when one sees what it has done in cultures all over the world. In this part of the world hatreds last for millennia, perhaps due largely to childhood inculcation of religious ideology. Riad’s father buys him a plastic revolver as a toy. “All boys like weapons,” he says. Does it follow, I wonder, that all who like weapons are still boys?

What Riad captures in this work is the deeply ingrained and insufficiently informed nature of the racism and sectarianism in each of the countries in which he has lived. He also captures realistically grim pictures of living conditions in each country, as well as the good bits: in France, we see an education system that seems to work well for enrollees; in Libya, we see ancient ruins by the sea that evoke history better than many other ruins; in Syria, we see the memories of a school-aged Abdul-Razak bring him back to a simple life. But each is a comfortable deception that people feel comfortable telling themselves. Family ties were more important than whether your relatives were good people or not, and obligation takes the place of generosity.

Riad’s drawing skill is such that one can envision the environment quite clearly. It is better than a photograph since Riad can add the elements he wishes to emphasize. In the New York Times review of this title, as well as The New Yorker 10/19/15 review, called "Drawing Blood, we learn that Riad has a few more installments planned for this series, and I look forward eagerly to other adventures as he grows older. He has a viewpoint that is not all sarcasm. He so far has spared his mother, who comes across as a bewildered alien in a hostile environment.

Riad’s work has the sting of criticism, but since he presents it through the eyes of a child, adult readers are meant to add their own gloss, knowing what we do about the perceptions of a child. Let’s see what he comes up with next, enjoying this and making up our minds later about whether he oversteps the mark.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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