Comic Tale of French-Arab Culture Clash

Graphic novel 'The Arab of the Future' tells autobiographical story of growing up in Syria and Libya, longing for France.

Olivier Marty

A few decades after it occurred, the awkward courting by a young male Arab student of a petite, blonde-haired French female student in the cafeteria of the Sorbonne spawned one of France’s most surprising best-sellers in recent memory: Riad Sattouf’s graphic autobiographical novel “L’Arabe du Futur” (“The Arab of the Future”). Sattouf’s father was a poor but brilliant Syrian student who won a scholarship to study in Paris; his mother was a Frenchwoman from Brittany who fell for him despite his pitiful French. Not long after their son was born, the little family traded their comfortable life in Paris to spend years living in two of the Middle East’s formidable dictatorships, Libya and Syria.

In “L’Arabe du Futur,” the first volume of a trilogy, Sattouf describes his parents’ meeting, his father’s heartbreak following the Arab countries’ defeats in the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars (“Next time we’ll wipe them out!” the father thunders each time he hears the news), and his father’s decision to turn down an offer to teach at Oxford and accept an academic position in Libya instead. But most of the book is devoted to the author’s childhood memories from the years he spent with his parents in Libya and Syria. He depicts personal and family experiences, much of it amusing, but all combined with depictions of the harsh living conditions, the injustices of the government, the corruption, chauvinism, violence and patriarchal attitudes that he encountered in these countries back then. Despite the humor employed in these depictions, they also lead the reader to ponder what is happening in these countries today as well.

For example, Sattouf describes how he came to Libya with his parents as a child and saw Gadhafi’s picture everywhere, and how he developed a childish affection for the forceful dictator. To the young French boy with the blond curls, who attracted a lot of attention in the Middle East and was showered with love wherever he turned, including from complete strangers, the Libyan tyrant seemed charming and impressive.

“Gadhafi was on television all the time. He reminded me of myself —like me, he was always surrounded with people who admired him and smiled at him,” writes Sattouf, drawing himself standing in his crib, staring wide-eyed at a television screen on which Gadhafi is seen standing in a military uniform, bedecked with medals and the sunglasses he always wore, facing a huge crowd that is cheering and saluting him.

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“L’Arabe du Futur” was published in France last year and became a huge hit. It topped the best-seller list for 26 weeks, was awarded the prize for Best Graphic Novel at the annual Angouleme Festival, and rights have been sold for it to be published in 16 languages. Four months ago, the second volume of the trilogy came out in France, and also zoomed to the top of the best-seller list. And for those who don’t speak French, the English edition of the first volume was just published last week by Metropolitan Press.

Highly-charged father

In the book, Sattouf describes his father as a passionate advocate of the consensus Arab narrative, a great believer in the future of the Arab nation, and someone who, despite his Western education, remains faithful to the Middle Eastern culture in which he was raised. But he also depicts the charismatic father as something of a dictator in his own family, who drags his wife and son to the Middle East despite their lack of any enthusiasm for the idea, and obliges them to live there despite their yearning to return to the West.

Naturally, it didn’t take long for Sattouf to encounter terms like “Israel” and “Jew” and not in very pleasant circumstances. On the day he first comes with his parents to the Syrian village where his father grew up, and meets the family, Sattouf’s grandfather sends him off to join his cousins who are in the midst of a violent brawl. When they notice him, two of the children stop what they’re doing, raise their hands and point at the blond boy approaching them and shout ‘Yahud!’ The next minute the non-Jewish French child is sprawled on the ground and getting beat up. The same curse word is hurled at him during nearly every other encounter with the local children, and an equally nasty one — “Isra’il!” — takes him aback when he goes to play toy soldiers with some other, friendlier cousins. Sattouf quickly finds himself stuck with “Israeli” soldiers frozen in poses of surrender or death, while his cousins all have “Syrian” soldiers who pull off much more heroic, courageous exploits. The Jew was “a kind of evil creature for us,”

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Sattouf told The New Yorker in an interview last week, though no one had actually seen one. He adds that he “tried to be the most aggressive one toward the Jews, to prove that I wasn’t one of them.”

In his comics, Sattouf deftly weaves the political background with the everyday. He tells a personal story but also observes the society and country around him, and his great sense of humor makes reading the book thoroughly enjoyable. It’ll have you laughing to the point of tears. The complete freedom he gave himself to tell the story from the unconventional point of view of a boy who doesn’t try to submit to any rules of courtesy, objectivity or political correctness, adds interest. Sattouf doesn’t hesitate to include overt criticism of the regimes and societies of the Arab countries where he lived as a child, and does not shy from portraying his intelligent, charismatic father as someone who also holds racist, chauvinist, aggressive and anti-democratic views.

“I like to tell stories inspired by reality. I really like trying to fictionalize reality,” Sattouf told Haaretz in an email interview a few days ago. “I had the project to tell my childhood in the Middle East in mind for over 10 years but never found the right angle, the way that suits me. And then, in 2011, when civil war began in Syria, I had to help some members of my family to flee from Syria. I had many problems in France to obtain the entry authorizations for them. I wanted to tell these moments of difficulty. But before I could tell all of this, I had to tell the main story from the beginning. This is what decided me to start ‘The Arab of the Future.’”

Years at Charlie Hebdo

Born in 1978, Sattouf has published several books, and his comic strips have appeared in numerous publications, including the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (he stopped working there about six months before the massacre at the magazine’s headquarters). He has also written and directed two full-length feature films: Les beaux gosses (2009), which won the Cesar for Best First Feature Film, and Jacky au royaume des filles (2014). He is currently working on the third volume of his autobiographical graphic novel trilogy.

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For now, no publishing house is planning to put out a Hebrew edition of L’Arabe du Futur. And Arab countries have also not been eager to put out an Arabic version, despite the book’s great success and the relevant subject matter.

Asked how the terror attack at Charlie Hebdo affected him, and if it changed anything in his work, he says, “I drew ‘The Secret Life of Young People’ in Charlie Hebdo for eight years. I wasn’t a caricaturist and didn’t draw political cartoons, I’m very bad at it. I was telling in comics the scenes I witnessed in the street, featuring young people. I had left Charlie six months before the murders to join another French newspaper, Le Nouvel Observateur.” Asked how the massacre affected his art, he says, “Like everyone else, I was deeply affected by this event. But it did not, I think, influence how I tell my story.”