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.