"Baddawi," by Leila Abdelrazaq, Just World Books, 128 pp., $20
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"The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984," by Riad Sattouf, Metropolitan Books, 160 pp., $26
How much faith can one place in another’s account of the past? No writer can be an entirely objective observer, of course; some, however, have the skill to turn their subjective lens into a positive attribute. The American writer and essayist Lynne Tillmans puts it like this: “Like histories, diaries are accounts of the past. Unlike histories, they are not written retrospectively, and subjectivity is their central claim to truth.”
This rule of thumb isn’t precisely correct (diaries are all too often edited and expurgated), but it is a useful metric nonetheless. Subjectivity permits the author to say, without fear of contradiction, “this is my truth.” Readers, for their part, grant the author and his or her narrative the benefit of the doubt.
But do memoirs, given their personal – and thus subjective – perspective deserve the benefit of doubt? Two recent books, both graphic memoirs and both closely connected to the experiences of the authors’ fathers in different parts of the Middle East, raise interesting questions about this literary form.
"Baddawi," written and drawn by the Palestinian-American writer Leila Abdelrazaq, seeks to extract uncontested truth from the fuzzy space that lies between subjective experience and objective reality. Her story begins with her grandparents’ expulsion during Israel's War of Independence, to a Lebanese refugee camp; it ends, in the early 1980s, when her father, Ahmad, leaves Lebanon for a new life in America. The story of the years in between is a fragmented narrative of loss and longing, of her father’s pining for a homeland he never knew.
Abdelrazaq’s personal engagement with her father’s childhood clearly informs the larger ambitions she has for his story. “This story you are about to read isn’t only about my father,” she writes in the book’s preface. “It is about my cousins and aunts and uncles about five million people, born into a life of exile and persecution, indefinitely suspended in statelessness.”
From her father’s story, Abdelrazaq seeks a synecdoche for the narrative of the dispossessed Palestinian nation. But one child’s shoulders might be too slender to carry the weight of five million subjective experiences.
Ahmad was born in Baddawi – the refugee camp from which the book takes its name – some years after the 1948 war. His parents were driven from Safsaf, a village in northern Israel, during Operation Hiram – the nascent Israeli army’s push to secure the Galilee in the last days of the war. When soldiers arrived at his village, Ahmad’s father was away; his mother, 17 years old, hid while the men of the village were rounded up and shot. The survivors, Ahmad’s parents among them, fled, believing that they would be able to return to their homes at some point in the future. But, of course, they would not.
Empathetic mise en scene
From Ahmad’s perspective, life in Baddawi is routine, unexceptional. He goes to school, makes friends and rivals, invents a gambling game to earn a few piastres and buy himself a pair of soccer boots; the last, unsurprisingly, causes a ruckus.
It is easy for the reader to recognize that this is far from a normal life. Ahmad’s childhood unfolds in the shadow of existential uncertainty, the manifest abnormality of life as a dispossessed refugee. The Israeli and Lebanese armies (separately) raid and bomb the camp, hunting down Palestinian Liberation Organization “resistance fighters.” (This is a matter of perspective, after all: One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist and all that.) Ahmad processes the intrusions with a matter-of-factness that only serves to underscore the painful poignancy of his truth.
Abdelrazaq has an instinctive knack for shaping an empathetic mise en scene, interweaving episodes from everyday life with interludes of quiescence and silent longing. We see Ahmad wandering the hillsides to harvest hyssop, his grandfather shepherding his meager flock of sheep on the slopes. These are opportunities, understated yet effective, to demonstrate the Palestinian yearning for freedom and emancipation. The mood is complemented by Abdelrazaq’s minimalist illustrations, rendered in a muted palette of black and grays. Intricate geometric patterns – representations of tatreez, traditional Palestinian embroidery – serve as visual interstitials, lending "Baddawi" both character and anthropological depth.
But – and there’s all too often a “but” when it comes to matters of perspective and the Middle East: Abdelrazaq – a theater arts graduate of Chicago’s DePaul University, and pro-Palestinian activist – clearly has the right to use her father’s story as the starting point for a more expansive political argument. But this right comes with a duty, to be faithful as she can to her father’s narrative by bridging the gap between the subjective and the objective convincingly. And it’s on this point that "Baddawi" wavers.
These shortcomings aren’t of themselves the result of an increasingly partisan perspective, Abdelrazaq casually throwing in the rhetoric of “Zionist terrorist organizations” and “mass ethnic cleansing.” Things that shouldn’t have happened did occur during the war of 1948 and its aftermath; the labels appended to these events shouldn’t detract from the facts. Rather, the problem comes from the incompleteness of her narrative.
As Ahmad eases into young manhood and Lebanon into the quagmire of civil war, the empathetic vignettes that defined the first half of the book become thin and insubstantial, all the more so because they are now, deliberately, rooted in the wider political context, but not fleshed out with the detail they demand.
As "Baddawi" becomes more overtly political, it slips into an untested didacticism, reducing the complexities of the Lebanese civil war to easy compartmentalization of good and bad; the Palestinian nation, in Abdelrazaq’s telling, are the perpetual, passive victim. The unintended consequence of this storytelling bait-and-switch is that "Baddawi" feels much less confident about the certainties of Ahmad’s world: Abruptly, he stops feeling real, and becomes much more an avatar attempting – and failing – to represent a million (or five) different faces.
It’s a shame because the good in "Baddawi" – and there is much to recommend in it – is smothered by this poorly executed sleight-of-hand, the insistence that one boy’s life can represent the undifferentiated experience of an entire people. The plight of the Palestinian people demands closer examination, this much is obvious. But Ahmad’s subjective experiences are his, and should be left for him alone.
Showing, not telling
"The Arab of the Future," a first-person graphic memoir by the cartoonist and film director Riad Sattouf, presents as somewhat more sophisticated, albeit through the counter-intuitive conceit of the story being narrated by the author’s 4-year-old self. Sattouf sensibly concentrates on showing – and not telling – what his younger self experienced during his peripatetic childhood in Libya, France and Syria. Wisdom is supposed to come from the mouths of children who are innocent and honest, after all. And who would pick an ideological fight with a 4-year-old?
Riad is the first child of Abdel-Razak and Clementine. Abdel-Razak, effusive and irrepressible, is a Syrian emigre, a brilliant student awarded a scholarship to study for a doctorate in modern history at the Sorbonne. Clementine, reserved and level-headed, is a student from Brittany; she takes pity on Abdel-Razak after a friend sets him up on a nonexistent date, and ends up falling for his charms.
Riad, with doe-like eyes and blond hair that frames his features like a temporal halo, has a charm of his own; gentle and passive, he is the constant focus of adoring adults. He has none of his father’s temperament, which seems not to be a bad thing as the elder Sattouf’s impetuousness edges itself way to the center stage of the narrative.
Abdel-Razak loves the freedoms of France (“They even pay you to be a student!” he exclaims), but loathes the racism, perceived and real, of his hosts; he is particularly aggrieved when he fails to score the highest grades for his doctoral dissertation, conveniently ignoring Clementine’s substantial editorial assistance. He is offered a teaching position at Oxford, but turns it down because the letter from the university misspells his name. Eventually, he takes up a position in Libya: Without as much as a by-your-leave, the family is packed and on its way to Tripoli.
Abdel-Razak fancies himself a pan-Arabist, with a strong belief in the emancipatory qualities of mass education; in General Muammar Gadhafi, he sees a progressive leader with an ambitious vision for his desert state and surmises that Libya will be the perfect fit for the Sattoufs. As if. From the start, the reality is dystopian confusion. Because private property is outlawed, all living accommodation is free and unlocked. They move into an apartment, go for a short walk and return to find their belongings neatly piled on the doorstep. “It was empty, my brother,” the new tenant explains through a crack in the doorway. “Just try a few doors down, you’ll find another house.”
There’s a huge gap, Abdel-Razak soon discovers, between Gadhafi’s political rhetoric and the reality wrought by his striking eccentricity. This distance is magnified when viewed through young Riad’s hypersensitive eyes. They queue for food – there is a surfeit of bananas, for some reason – at a local cooperative (men and women on separate days). The inevitable fisticuffs aside, Riad becomes obsessed with smells, noting that the men reek of urine and sweat, the women of dust.
Clementine takes up an unpaid job as a French-language newsreader for a radio station, but hurriedly resigns after committing the unforgivable faux-pas of laughing, live on-air, at one of Gadhafi’s more fanciful proclamations (something about personally crossing the Atlantic to kill “that son-of-a-bitch Reagan”).
Unsurprisingly, Libya doesn’t work out. Gnomic pronouncements from both the Leader (proposing the ultimate job swap – teachers to become farmers, and vice versa) and the Father (“Would you like a little brother to play with?”) confuse poor Riad, and he decides, sensibly, to pretend that nothing is happening. But this doesn’t stop him being swept back, without warning, to France and his grandmother’s house, a Gothic cottage on the northwestern coast.
The French, Riad discovers, are just as weird as the Libyans (if, admittedly, better fed). But before he has the chance to settle down, the family is off again, this time to Syria, which Abdel-Razak hasn’t visited for 13 years. Different place, same sweat and smells. It hardly helps that Riad’s cousins, borderline feral and suspicious of his blond hair, conclude that he is a Jew. (Feel free to fill in the gaps here.)
Abdel-Razak, in the meantime, discovers that his older brother has swindled him out of his inheritance. Not the perfect homecoming, it’s fair to say. In the meantime Clementine, with a newborn child to look after as well as Riad, soldiers away uncomplainingly.
More a series of overlapping vignettes than linear storytelling, the connecting thread that draws "The Arab of the Future" together is the rank weirdness with which the world presents itself to a small, rootless child.
In Libya, Riad makes friends with a Yemeni boy his age, who is obsessed with the Libyan national anthem and pistols; in France, his budding artistic talent (his party piece is a realistic rendering of Georges Pompidou, erstwhile French prime minister) is smothered when his classmates insist that meaningless scribbles yield more pleasure.
It does at times feel that "The Arab of the Future" pays back the various unkindnesses that befall Riad with an equally ungenerous coin. The anonymous locals of Libya and Syria are portrayed as uniformly swarthy and sweaty – uneven teeth and warts often crowning a lack of aesthetic grace. To be fair, these are the unredacted recollections of a small child. Still, Sattouf’s recollections of the Middle Eastern man on the street sometimes steer too close to reductive stereotyping.
But for all this, a balance of sorts emerges from Riad’s characterization of his father. Vainglorious yet indecisive, his politically progressive views don’t elevate him above crude racial invective when it suits him. His attitudes to his Arab brethren are perhaps the most contradictory.
“If [left to] decide for themselves, they do nothing,” he declares over dinner with Clementine’s family. “They’re lazy-ass bigots, even though they have the same potential as everyone else.” But minutes later, he is singing a different tune. “When the Arabs are educated, they’ll free themselves from the old dictators,” he predicts. Abdel-Razaq, of course, is educated: He is, in his mind at least, the Arab of the Future.
"The Arab of the Future" (the first part of a planned trilogy; the second was published in France last spring) works because it doesn’t lay any claims to an overt prescience about the future of the Middle East. Rather, it is an engaging portrait of a complex and contradictory character; the political and social landscape of the Middle East complement, rather than define, Abdel-Razak.
And it is this that distinguishes "The Arab of the Future" from "Baddawi": because the former is manifestly more faithful to the retrospective gaze, the reader is inclined to give it, absurdities and all, the benefit of the doubt.