Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, a widely acclaimed graphic novel published first in French and then in translation in English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and several other languages, is a work of extraordinary candour. Sattouf, who has a Syrian father and a French mother, shows minimal restraint when he portrays in pictures and dialogue a confusing childhood in France, Libya and Syria, surrounded by relatives and neighbours whose attitudes to the young Riad veer from patronising pampering to hostile bullying. This is not a book that pretends to make many generalisations about the nature of French, Libyan and Syrian society, or from which readers should try to make generalisations of their own. Instead, assuming it is a faithful record of Sattouf’s childhood memories, it is an intensely personal chronicle of traumatic experiences that a sensitive young boy underwent, partly because he and his mother were seen as suspect outsiders in the relatively isolated communities in which they lived. On several occasions with children the young Riad is meeting for the first time, they point at him and call him Jewish: casual anti-Semitism is a recurrent theme. Arab readers who are inclined to dismiss the book as a litany of stereotypes about the places where Sattouf lived should give him the benefit of the doubt and trust his account of how he felt as a vulnerable child. If the young Riad discovered little of great value in Libya and Syria, it might have been because he never had the opportunity.
Sattouf does not spare either of his parents. His father, Abdul Razak, who studied modern history at the Sorbonne in Paris and then had teaching jobs, comes across as an intolerant, insensitive and ineffectual bigot – chavinistic and occasionally inclined to violence. Sattouf makes fun not only of his authoritarian beliefs: he even makes fun of the way he holds a pencil and draws a Mercedes. His French mother, Clémentine, who lives in almost complete social isolation for years, comes across as long-suffering and docile. But Sattouf devotes most of his satire to the phenomena he encounters on his childhood ventures – ignorance and superstition, the personality cults of the late Libyan and Syrian leaders – Muammar Gaddafi and Hafez al-Assad, the petty corruption that pervades their countries, favouritism in the allocation of jobs, casual cruelty towards animals and children, public executions and environmental degradation. These features of Middle Eastern life, if described by a visiting reporter, might raise the hackles of many readers. But Sattouf tells his story from the perspective of an innocent child, with such humour and perspicacity that the incidents have an authenticity that is hard to dismiss. Besides, the author is almost as acerbic in his depiction of his French relatives, given that he spends much less of his childhood among them. His maternal grandfather is lecherous and the old woman in the Brittany village where they stay might well have been a witch.
It is easy to see why The Arab of the Future has been such a success: not so much because it reinforces widespread perceptions of Arab society but because Sattouf’s drawing and dialogue draw the reader into the child’s limited and confusing world. Whether it should be included in a theoretical corpus of Syrian literature is another matter, especially as the author has clearly opted to emphasise the French aspect of his heritage.
Jonathan Wright studied Arabic at Oxford University and worked as a journalist for thirty years, mainly with Reuters news agency in the Middle East. He took up literary translation in 2008 with an English version of Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi. He has since translated about a dozen novels or collections of short stories, several of which have won prizes, including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2014 and the Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation in 2014 and 2016.