Author and illustrator: Riad Sattouf
Translator: Sam Taylor
Publisher: Two Roads 2016
No. of pages: 154
Subthemes: Childhood, socio-political disturbances, racism, religion
Timeline: Set between the years 1978 and 1984, with brief throwbacks to early 1970s.
The second part of the Arabs of the Future graphic novel series is based in countryside Syria, and explores the daily social realities of the people of the region under the dictatorial rule of Bashar al-Assad through the lens of one family’s experiences, their attempts towards integration into traditional Syrian society and a terrible choice that they are eventually forced to make. The narrative spans the course of a single year, from 1984 to 1985.
The plot picks up from where it had ended in the first part of the series. The family of the protagonist is now settled in his father’s ancestral village in Syria, called Ter Maaleh near Homs. The focus of this novel is on Riad’s experiences in the local school, his attempts to fully embrace his Syrian identity, and his father’s pursuance of professional growth while also dealing with the subtleties and complications of family relations. The author continues to use his younger self as a major plot device and an innocent mirror to the injustices and brutalities of Syrian society. The artwork serves to emphasize this aspect of violence and callousness through the use of impactful colours and onomatopoeia.
Throughout the course of the narrative, the aspect of violence is reinforced as a vital issue in the everyday lives people, beginning right from one’s childhood. As Riad starts attending the local school, he is confronted with thoughtlessly cruel school teachers and children who are both bullies and victims of the same traumatic teaching environment as himself. A similar callousness is increasingly reflected in the author’s father’s words and actions towards him and his mother. Significantly, the mother is described as tired and sad, reflecting the effect of the inherently male chauvinistic attitudes of the region. Corporal punishment is shown to be an everyday affair, both at homes and in school, though it does not occur in the author’s own household. There is a disproportionate emphasis on religious training in schools rather than secular education as is the norm in the West, along with virulent nationalism; significantly, the students are taught songs in praise of Syria before they are taught the alphabet.
The narrative is an amalgamation of small moments and incidents that come together to paint a coherent if decidedly brutal picture of Syrian life. The descriptions of the squalor and lack of civic sensibilities bring out the squalid and distressing lives of the people. Innate patriarchy is revealed through casually sexist remarks thrown in by people, even children, in their banter. While the protagonist’s father remains submissive to his wife’s needs in many ways, the essence of gender discrimination continues to linger. Another aspect that is brought to light is Riad’s father’s servile and unctuous behaviour in the company of his relatives, particularly those who are rich and powerful, in the hopes of garnering favours from them. Class dynamics percolates into the lives of the children as well, who seem to be acutely aware of their social stations. The narrative reaches a crescendo with the occurrence of a dreadful event in the family where the parents have to choose between ethics and family bonds, successfully tying together the different themes and ideas of the novel.
The narrative closes with a cliffhanger, as the family continues to remain in flux about their social acceptance in the traditional Syrian society, while at the same time pursuing their economic aspirations. More importantly, the consequences of the family tragedy remain undisclosed except for a single startling discovery.