Growing Up Arab

A panel from Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir The Arab of the Future
Riad Sattouf/Metropolitan
A panel from Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir The Arab of the Future

The most astonishing thing about The Arab of the Future, Riad Sattouf’s deft and devastating graphic memoir of his first seven years of life, is that he managed to write and publish it without getting killed.

Born in Paris in 1978, the son of a Syrian Sunni father and a mother from Brittany, Sattouf grew up in Libya, France, and Syria; his peripatetic childhood is the subject of his book.

Riad Sattouf, Paris, 2015
Olivier Marty
Riad Sattouf, Paris, 2015

But we know much more about Sattouf than his early life. We know that as an adult he moved back to France, drew a comic book about being circumcised when he was eight, made a satirical movie called Jacky in the Women’s Kingdom (set in a fictional Islamic country with reversed sex roles), and, until just before the massacre in Paris, worked for Charlie Hebdo, where he was the only cartoonist of Arab descent. In short, we know that Sattouf chose France over Syria. There he wrote and drew The Arab of the Future, a withering critique of his experiences of the societies he left behind, couching it all coyly in a picaresque graphic memoir told from a child’s point of view.

The first volume of this memoir, published initially in French as L’Arabe du Futur, won both the top award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in 2015 and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best graphic novel. (I served on the LA jury.) It focuses primarily on the relationship between little Riad and his father, Abdel-Razak, a professor with ambitions of bringing enlightenment, education, and unity to his fellow Arabs.

The second volume—in the running for a second Angoulême prize this year before Sattouf withdrew in protest because no female authors were on the list of nominees—focuses on Riad’s religious schooling in Syria.

On one level, these two volumes are the detailed recollection, drawn with great economy and humor, of a preternaturally observant child as he is wrenched from Libya (which he denotes with a yellow wash) to France (a blue wash) and finally to Syria (a pink wash). Along the way we get a fine-grained, first-person account of the brutality of Syria under Hafez al-Assad and Libya under Muammar Qaddafi. But as the title suggests, The Arab of the Future can be read much more broadly. It suggests a story of two cultures, two civilizations, two ways of life—Europe vs. the Middle East, Occident vs. Orient. And it serves, in effect, as a close account and justification of Sattouf’s ultimate choice of France.

The look and sensibility of…

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