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.