The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984: A Graphic Memoir

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Genre: Autobiography

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.

Storyline:

Set in the Middle East and in France in short stretches, Arabs of the Future I is the story of little Riad Sattouf, the author, and his eccentric, mixed race family, and their sojourns through France, Libya and Syria during his growing up years. The narrative explores life in the dictatorial regimes of the war-torn regions as seen through the eyes of a six year old. It is set between the years 1978 and 1984, with occasional throwbacks to the early 70s, the period of courtship between his parents.

The narrative is very firmly focused on the young protagonist, the author himself. Through his mixed ethnicity, he proves to be an effective lens to study the socio-political and cultural highlights of the Middle Eastern dictatorships. The plot begins with a close description of the physical attributes of the protagonist, both textually and graphically. This is a major plot device whose importance is gradually exposed over the course of the narrative.  Riad’s platinum blonde silky hair and bright eyes make him a particularly attractive child in France, where his mother is from, but cause him to be ostracized violently in the Middle East as a ‘Jew’. The artwork borders on caricature, reflecting the preposterous nature of the dictatorial regimes the author grows up in. The impact is particularly strong due to the tender age of the protagonist, and the reader is provided with a childlike lens to societal tyranny which is also reflected in the author’s own family life through his father.

The primary focus of the narrative lies on the issue of pan-Arabism and the family’s engagement with it, enhanced through the mixed ethnic composition of the family. The plot makes short explorations of the author’s parents’ courtship period, giving an overview of their individual natures, an important device that highlights the changes that his father eventually undergoes. As the family moves to Libya, then under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, his father becomes more religious and orthodox, signifying the stranglehold of religious bigotry on the inhabitants of the region. The descriptions of life in Libya, and eventually in Syria underline various aspects of society in the region. Patriarchal condescension is often disguised as concern in his father’s behaviour towards his mother, as is the pronounced preference for the male child when she gets pregnant with her second child. The dysfunctionality of the regime comes across clearly through the absurd regulations about house occupation. The casual violence in everyday life as witnessed by the author is another significant aspect, as is the distasteful form of humour that is popular with the inhabitants.

The author’s relationship with his grandparents from both sides of the family underline the major cultural differences between the West and the Middle East. The narrative explores the protagonist’s unconscious attempts to fit into Middle Eastern society as opposed to his French heritage. The family moves to Syria, the father’s homeland, and attempts to integrate into traditional Syrian society. It is here that Riad faces overt ostracism from the Syrian children because of his appearance. This section of the novel explores the protagonist’s father’s character in more detail, particularly in conjunction with his family. There is an unconscious integration into traditional Syrian lifestyle, as seen in his adopting the ethnic attire dtellaba. Aspects of food shortage and financial constraints are introduced, as are the subtleties of familial relations. The children of the local inhabitants are seen to be imbued with martial violence and racial hatred against Israel and the Jews, thus making a direct reference to contemporary geopolitics. The disturbing incident of the children casually killing a dog for fun highlights the daily brutalities of the regime, and the difficulty that the author’s gentle French mother faces in adjusting to the place.

The novel ends at a point where the family fly back to France for a brief period, mostly because of Riad’s mother’s insistence. Once again, a sharp difference is drawn between the lives of people in the East and the West through their experiences in France. At its closing, the family is ready to return to their lives in Syria, and the next part of the narrative is explored in the second part of the novel.