The academic-sounding title, The Arab of the Future, echoes the character looming over Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir (the first in a four-book series)—his Syrian father, Abdel-Razak, who earns his doctorate in France but takes his wife and son to Libya, then home to Syria. While this book’s sense of a politicized childhood isn’t nearly as strong as Marjane Satrapi’s classic Persepolis, it does pop and snap with some moments of growing disillusionment about adult weirdness and wide-eyed wonder at cultural strangeness.
Here and there, Sattouf’s infancy—he’s a much-admired little blond boy whose what’s-the-big-deal? puzzlement vies with immodesty—is too busy with adult-voiced captions outlining socio-historical context. But the art’s always engaging: cartoonish drawings (especially noses: sausage-like schnozzes, sharp beaks, bulbous snouts) and national colours (France scenes shaded blue, with red splashes; Libya memories shaded desert-yellow, with green bursts; Syria moments shaded rose, with green and red spurts). Smells are strong: “[b]ig fat drops of sweat poured off” men in line for food in Tripoli. There’s a sense of adults and their politics as neurotic, from a “completely WACKO” neighbour woman in Brittany to Qaddafi’s oddball ideas in his green book: “Inheriting the feelings of their ancestors, successors will spontaneously hate the same color.” The story can be too simple in stretches, though, and Sattouf’s mother doesn’t get enough of a voice.
It’s secular Abdel-Razak who dominates—seeming “fantastic” and “so strong” initially to his son, we eye more of his quirks, then faults. He scratches his nose and sniffs when humiliated. He’s intrigued by killing birds and imagines being a Mercedes-owning millionaire. His Arab politics are usually militarist, tribal (he’s Sunni), and occasionally idealistic (pan-Arabist); there are glinting flashes of his autocratic maleness, an outburst of his racism. He gives his son a toy gun to carry (the book’s most potent symbol of a Middle-East era dominated by regional violence and warfare); little Riad feels strangely attracted to toughness and shows of force.
As Riad grows up in small-town Syria, his confusing cultural education (in anti-Jewish-ness, poverty and meanness, and family feuding) becomes near-feverish. It’s a promising sign—if future volumes pointedly push this young French-Syrian’s scepticism and introspection beyond fatherland-territory, Sattouf’s memoir-series would impressively mature, deepening its voice.
The Arab of the Future
By Riad Sattouf;
translated by Sam Taylor
Metropolitan Books, 154 pp, $29.99