Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Arab of the Future, Part 2 by Riad Sattouf, translated by Sam Taylor

Volume II is a continuation of the adventures of Riad as a young French-Arab in Homs in the mid-1980s. Riad is still a child, blond-haired and six years old. He is ready to go to school for the first time, and is terrified. With good reason, it turns out.

Sattouf positively outdoes himself drawing scenes from the classroom. The headscarf-wearing teacher has a skirt so short and legs so large that our eyes widen in fear. Riad takes a frame to zero in on the impossible narrowness of her high heels, her calves looming dense and heavy above, like a boulder snagged over a walkway. She looks dangerous. That is to say nothing of the smile she holds a second before she strikes the boys on the palms with a wooden rod. Nothing so thin as a ruler, her tool is a rod that looks very solid and hard in her hand.
"Ha, ha, [Riad’s father chortles that evening] you’re funny. You’re just like me at your age. Scared of everything…Don’t worry, nothing will happen."
More false words were never spoken. Lots happens, and much of it is life-threatening. But perhaps most importantly we see the utter cruelty with which people treat one another. If there was ever a time to be grateful for political correctness in our daily interactions, after reading this you will breathe a sigh of relief for those tedious niceties. You will remember the menace of schoolyard bullies, and realize Arab society, in Syria at least, is taught this is normal human behavior: to be admired if you win, killed if you do not.

Sattouf takes his time with this installment of the story of young Riad. We spend a couple of days sampling the coursework in first grade: patriotic songs, basic characters for writing, reading skills without comprehension, and inventive slurs and punishments. We meet the neighbors: a police-chief-cousin whose stash of gold jewelry could finance a bank, and whose home is a huge unfinished concrete pile cratered with moisture-seeping cracks. We go on a day trip to Palmyra with a general while Riad’s father spends his time trying to wrangle the general into “putting in a word” for his advancement at the university where he works. Palmyra is littered with ancient-looking pottery shards which Riad’s father disdains.
"In the third century after Jesus Christ [Riad’s father says dully, lighting a cigarette] Zenobia turned the nomad’s city of Palmyra into an influential artistic center."
Riad returns to France and enjoys it at the same time he begins to realize he is changing…has changed. He is a desert child now, confused with the plenty that surrounds him in France. It is a poignant section we all recognize for its dislocation. He does not read or speak French particularly well. The French language is difficult, and complicated. Where does Riad fit in? Where does he belong? Where will he be accepted?

The scenes of RIad with the men in his community when he returns to Homs are memorable. Very little is said; the drawings do the work here. I did not understand all that was implied, but someone will. Perhaps the punchline will be revealed in another installation of the life of Riad in Syria. Riad’s father is becoming more and more unbearable as a husband, as a father, as a man. He is hopelessly out of his league wherever he is, and always aspirational, never in control. His wife is losing patience, and he himself is recognizing a few hard truths that have him sitting by himself in some frames, smoking and silent.

Sattouf leaves us feeling unsettled and unsure. Do we want Riad in this place with these people? I think his mother is feeling similarly unsure. The father…one gets the sense that however much the father thinks he is the man, there is precious little he does control.

This installment just cements my sense that this kind of graphic novel may be the easiest, most immediate, most fun way to learn about a culture. When it is done well, a boatload of information can be transmitted in a couple of frames. Sattouf appears to be completely frank about life in Homs as he sees it, and it is remarkable for its insights as well as its humor.

I love this series and will insist upon reading everything about Riad growing up. The Tintin series was the first set of books Riad had access to, the series being only one of two books his academic father had in his personal library. The other book was the Quran. Will look to see if I can see the influences from Tintin in Sattouf’s marvelous story of growing up Arab before his third book hits the stands.

The terrific translation of this work is done by Sam Taylor, and the U.S. publisher is Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt.

Paperback, 160 pages. Published September 20th 2016 by Metropolitan Books (first published June 11th 2015) Original TitleL'Arabe du futur 2 : Une jeunesse au Moyen-Orient (1984-1985) ISBN 1627793518 (ISBN13: 9781627793513)

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