The Arab of the Future: Telling the Truth with Drawings
The son of a French mother and a Syrian father, Riad Sattouf grew up as a blond boy amid Arab children who occasionally called him "Jew" as an insult because of his blond hair. Little Riad did not understand why the obsession in calling him Jewish, but he did not matter much.
Even today, this renowned 38 year old illustrator does not seem interested in blaming anyone for the prejudices that float in both the Middle East and the West. However, when he decided to draw his memoirs in The Arab of the Future, he did have one thing in mind very clear: he wanted to tell the truth, no matter how cruel. The result is an autobiographical comic in three volumes that portrays his childhood in the Libya of Gaddafi and the Syria of Hafez Al-Assad.
With a mixture of irony and childish ingenuity, Riad Sattouf narrates the events that marked his childhood in the Middle East in the late 70's and 80's - episodes in which he can't hide his displeasure towards the ultraconservative and traditional Arab rural society where he grew up - and let the readersmake their own interpretations.
"I think in paradise there will be lots of bananas," says Adnan, the Libyan boy who lives next to his apartment in Tripoli.
"What is paradise?" , answers Said.
"It's a great place where we go after we die. Life there is more beautiful than here "
The conversation between Said and his Libyan neighbor shows the cultural gap between two children from so different worlds, despite what his father tells him. His father, who is offered a position as University professor in Libya after graduating in Paris, lives in a contradiction: he is proud of his Arab roots and his Left wing thinking, and tries to convince Said that the Arab world has a promising future, but he knows that he can't hide poverty and underdevelopment to his child.
Her mother, who found a job as a radio news anchor, got fired in a matter of days because she could not contain her laughter when she had to report on Gadhafi's threats to invade the United States.
Arriving in Libya, Said's family settled in a house without keys, because Gaddafi had banned private property - something cool, according to Said's father - and the day after they had to move to another apartment because another family had occupied his home. Her mother, who found a job as a radio news anchor, got fired in a matter of days because she could not contain her laughter when she had to report on Gadhafi's threats to invade the United States and assassinate Ronald Reagan.
Despite Libya's political propaganda, food was scarce in Libya, and many times the family fed only on bananas. Said's mother, Clementine, is patient. She does not judge the society around her, despite the sexism and traditionalism she has to bear as French woman. She tries to get Said to listen to his Brassens cassettes and learn French so that he does not forget his culture, but at no point does he say that "France is better". His maternal grandparents, whom they visit once a year in their fishing village in French Brittany, do not put any pressure into her daughter to return to France.
After a period in Libya, the family moved to the home village of the Sattouf family, a rural village on the outskirts of Homs, in Syria. Rural Syria under the Al Assad government was a much more hostile territory than Tripoli: to his horror, Said sees his cousins entertaining themselves by killing dogs and pets in the street. But again, neither the child nor his mother judge. His drawings, which when based in Syria acquire a pink tone, expose a shocking reality, but are not judgmental.
His drawings tell a shocking reality, but are not judgmental.
Said tries to assimilate in his rural school, where children take two hours walking to school and the teacher lashes her hands with a stick and fills their heads with Propaganda:
"Tomorrow there will be a great event in our country! There will be presidential elections. That means we should all say "yes" to our president Hafez Al-Assad," says the teacher, a woman in a chador and tight skirts. The vignette is a clear mockery of a dictatorial system disguised as a democracy. "It is a dialogue between us, the people, and our president," adds the teacher.
Wandering around Homs with his father, little Said will see Al Assad political prisoners hanged in the public square, will visit the houses of corrupt millionaires and travel to luxury hotels on the beach that have little to do with the misery of his village. A funny scene shows Said discovering an all-you-can-eat free buffet in a luxury hotel: "There was chicken (legs, breasts, wings), roasted veal, different salads, pasta, rice, etc ... the best concept of all time" , he says, referring the buffet.
Clementine, always silent and servile, does not complain about the hostile, unfair and sexist environment she has to endure. She only asks for French food from time to time, pork pate, for example, and she insists on having an electric washing machine.
The only time she is truly disturbed is when she learns that some relatives of her husband have killed a young woman called Leila for getting pregnant without being married. His husband excuses them, as it is the worst humiliations a Syrian family can live in, but Clementine, horrified, pressures him to take the case to the police. Said is also sad. He liked Leila, because she had taken an interest in his drawings.
Finally, the assassins are imprisoned, but soon they are released again. "I could not do anything, I'm just a man among many other men in the family. People in the village were beginning to say that the Sattoufs were weak," said Said's father.