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The third part of Sattouf's graphic memoir begins when Riad is seven years old and living in a small village in Syria. While reading Parts 1 & 2 in this series, I've grown increasingly distressed about the uncomfortable position his mother's been cornered into living in a crumbling home with two small children far from her native France and in a culture very different from her own. Added to this is the father’s increasing stubbornness, reactionary views and snobbishness. It’s not surprising to find his parents locked into a battle which grows increasingly hostile as further developments are revealed over the course of this book. One of the most alarming changes in the book is Riad’s own domineering attitude directed at his younger brother Yahya. It shows how the violence he witnesses and (at times) experiences is shaping his character in a disturbing way. However, as with the previous books, these darker issues are presented in a way that allow you to feel the comic absurdity of the characters’ egotism and insecurities. It’s heartening to see as the series progresses that Riad isn’t a saint either. Nevertheless, I deeply feel for the precariousness of his position as a child in difficult circumstances who feels caught between Eastern and Western cultures.

It’s interesting how Riad’s role models have changed throughout the series. Where he first saw Georges Brassens as a God-like figure under his mother’s influence in Part 1, Riad is now drawn to Conan the Barbarian. It inspires him to the point of reproducing scenes from the film in drawings of his own and it’s poignant to see glimpses of the author’s artistic talent at its inception. The boy also is starting to test out different belief systems under his own initiative. Although he’s not asked to, he chooses to participate in Ramadan (albeit very briefly.) More subtly, there are dynamic conflicts portrayed in his parents’ lives. His father prides himself on establishing connections with an influential figure but it’s evident that he’s only being used for a specific purpose. The father also shows signs that he feels oppressed by his own past as he violently and spontaneously bursts out in anger against his own elderly mother at one point shouting “You ruined my life you stupid ignorant peasant!” It dismaying how his own evident conflicts between Eastern and Western cultures are being similarly imparted on his son.

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Like in the previous books, the children Riad encounters frighteningly mimic the attitudes and prejudices of the adults. Riad’s cousins tease him for being Jewish when they notice he’s uncircumcised which betrays their fundamental misunderstanding about the way the religion is practiced and how their prejudice is truly rooted in pure naivety. This unfortunately leads to one of the most disturbing scenes in this volume when Riad’s father decides to “correct” his son’s physically to fit with the other boys in Syria. The author has a special talent for portraying some truly squeamish imagery. But casual violence isn’t limited to instances in Syria because when Riad returns to France for a brief period there is also a disturbing scene involving kittens. But, no less unsettling, is the portrayal of the erosive effect of living in stultifying circumstances for a long period of time. This affects Riad’s mother the worst. Her desultory days are spent piecing together an elaborate jigsaw puzzle of a scene from her family’s French port town as if meditating on the heritage and counter life she’s lost. It’s a welcome relief when she makes a fleeting connection with Riad’s aunt Khadija who shows herself to be both an ally and someone with innate hidden intelligence.

I find it touching how imagery of the toy bull which first made an appearance at the start of the series still continues to haunt Riad. This menacing beast continues to plague him in vividly depicted nightmares but, as Riad adopts figures who inspire him to establish his own individuality separate from the values of his parents and society, we can see him finding tools to combat his inner demons/fears. My concerns for Riad and other characters in the book haven’t been allayed by the developments in this volume (in fact, they’ve been heightened by the suspenseful ending to volume 3!) But it’s made me all the more curious to see how the series will continue. I was delighted to discover recently that a fourth volume has been published in French, but it hasn’t been translated yet. I eagerly await to discover what happens next in this cleverly wrought graphic memoir!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRiad Sattouf

The books in the graphic memoir series “The Arab of the Future” make me feel like a child about to read the new Harry Potter or see the new Star Wars film. I look forward to them with so much anticipation and read each new volume immediately. The second volume is published in the UK this week! These books are such a joy to read for their lively and expressive drawings and engaging stories that present the author's wide-eyed innocent look at his cross-national childhood. In this volume his family move back to Syria (the place of his father's birth) when Riad is six years old. He goes to school for the first time learning Arabic from his tyrannical teacher and French from his mother at home. Meanwhile his professor father claims he'll build his wife and children a palatial home on a desolate plot of land they own, but as the time ticks by no progress is made. Sattouf presents his family and experiences with wit, humour, intelligence and great emotion.

This volume continues to give a fascinating view of what it was like growing up in a country under what's effectively a military dictatorship that is in perpetual conflict with the Israelis. Leader Hafez al-Assad holds elections but he's the only candidate on the ballot and the population is cowed into voting yes for him – in a memorable scene Riad's teacher orders her students to tell their parents to vote for their leader. What's particularly chilling about the teacher is the way he draws her so sweetly smiling one moment and horrendously enraged the next. She punishes them severely hitting the palms of the children's hands with a stick whenever they fail to comply to arbitrary rules such as wearing the correct uniform or bringing in a regulation size Quran. It's particularly cruel when she beats poor unclean boys who don't have the facilities to wash properly. Yet, Sattouf shows this woman's humanity as well in a scene where they children are ordered to imitate the sound of rain by tapping their fingers and she bursts into tears which gives an indication of her untold personal sorrows.

Meanwhile, on the playground the children parrot the nationalistic/religious dogma learned from their families and government while playing games where the objective is to kill all their Jewish enemies. In a way, the children portrayed are more terrifying than the adults as some look upon Riad with icy hard hatred for no apparent reason. This is especially frightening when his parents visit friends or relatives whose own children look pleasant when they are with the adults but turn mercilessly sadistic when left alone with Riad. Sattouf draws these scenes so well where you can see the hatred brewing within the characters’ faces as they stare at Riad as a boy. With his long blonde hair he stands out amongst the children who call him Jewish as an insult (even though his family is not).

Alongside the flagrant anti-Semitism expressed by people around him, there are horrific examples of misogyny from many characters. This is found in every day life where visits to family or friends entail the women preparing food which is only eaten by them after the men have finished or in offhanded remarks from Riad’s father and friends who claim women are stupid or difficult. Even more horrendously, Riad overhears his father describe how a woman is killed because she became pregnant outside of marriage. Shockingly, he expresses uncertainty to Riad’s mother about whether it should be reported.

This ambivalence exemplifies an ongoing internal conflict with Riad’s father which has been evident since the first book. He’s a man eager for progress, yet he capitulates to the dominant repressive ideologies around him. Over the course of these two books, I’ve come to feel very involved and concerned about what will happen to Riad’s father and mother. I’m amazed his mother puts up with the father’s attitudes, treatment of her and the difficult conditions she’s forced to live under. Of course, his father has a very tender side too. In some scenes he demonstrates how he’s also capable of great kindness and he occasionally reflects on difficult memories with Riad. This all makes me very keen to see what happens to his parents’ relationship.

The family goes to visit the father’s friend who is a General in the Syrian army and his grand home is shown to be full of cracks. Just like his mansion, this is a culture with many unconvincing facades. Sattouf sensitively shows how the social imbalances and rigidly enforced moralities are a result of people living under a government regime which does not tolerate any different or dissident opinions that conflict with the prevailing order. I’m absolutely gripped now and can’t wait to read the third volume of this striking and original memoir.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRiad Sattouf
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I read graphic books so rarely, but every time I do pick one up I wonder why I don’t read more. Maybe it’s because usually only the most acclaimed and, presumably, high quality ones reach me. Whatever the case, this first volume of Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir about his childhood growing up in Libya, Syria and France is absolutely mesmerising. It depicts his experiences under the parentage of his academic Syrian father Abdul-Razak and his French mother Clementine. His father’s ideals and pride about his heritage are complicated by the real world challenges he and his family encounter living under the rule of Gaddafi in early 80s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria a few years later. Gradually his principles change and he aspires to fashion his young blonde-haired son Riad into the Arab of the future.

Quite often the dialogue which accompanies illustrations of Riad’s experiences combine with very short snippets about political developments of the time. This intelligently puts these scenes in context and gives a welcome insight into the state the family lives under. Also, considering the father’s attitudes alongside our own historical knowledge about the outcome of some of the leaders and regimes he mentions makes this a bracing read. Sections of the book are shaded various colours to differentiate the nations that they are living in: blue for France, yellow for Libya, pink for Syria and (briefly) green for Jersey. I admired how these colours sync with Riad’s descriptions of the different environments of these various locations. The expressive design of the illustrations also beautifully reflect the emotional mood of the story – particularly during some vividly rendered dream sequences and a scene where Riad’s grandmother licks his eyes!

Wonderful touches of humour abound throughout this book including Clementine’s description of Georges Brassens as a French God leading Riad to visualise the singer every time someone mentions God to him. There are also sympathetic portraits of family relations and Riad’s impressions of a series of misfit or bullying other children. Some scenes depict chilling flashes of violence which springs up against animals and people. At other points a fascinating tension appears when the family comes under the sway of competing ideologies – particularly in the virulent anti-Israeli attitudes impressed upon children. For instance, toys Riad and two friends play with in Syria show the Syrian toy soldiers in heroic poses and the Israeli toy soldiers in treacherous poses. These attitudes demonstrate the growing conflict within Abdul-Razak of whom it’s noted “He said he wasn’t religious, but he constantly defended the Sunnis. According to him, the Sunnis were always right.” His cultural and national pride mingles with the dogmatic principles of religious doctrine so he comes to teach Riad things such as “Satan likes to hide inside women.” Reading about the father’s gradually transforming ideas makes me really tense to read how he will develop in the second volume of this graphic memoir.

“The Arab of the Future” is a tremendously engaging story of family life. It’s also a fascinating personal insight into differing cultural attitudes, the physical reality of living under two distinct Arab leaders and how national/social/religious ideologies filter through the consciousness of a wide-eyed adolescent. It’s a heartfelt, refreshing take on growing up in unique circumstances. I highly recommend reading it before the next volume of this trilogy is published in the UK in September by Two Roads.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRiad Sattouf