30 Oct / The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984 by Riad Sattouf, translated by Sam Taylor
By 2, he knew he was “perfect.” The toddler Riad with his “[l]ong, thick, silky, platinum-blonde hair,” might have been “awake for only a few hours a day, but it was enough: when it came to living, [he] was a natural.” And so begins the first of cartoonist/filmmaker Riad Sattouf’s three-part memoir – an innocently funny, darkly menacing recollection of experiences that begin in Paris, and wander through Libya and Syria with temporary returns to France.
As a student in Paris, Riad’s mother Clementine “took pity” on his father Abdel-Razak who was clearly trying too hard to pick up her friend in the university cafeteria. Originally from Syria, Abdel-Razak was on a scholarship at the Sorbonne. The pair married, and Riad was born in 1978, the same year Abdel-Razak defended his doctoral thesis. He turned down an offer to teach at Oxford – quite possibly, because they merely misspelled his name – and instead took a professorship in Libya, flattered that the offer letter was at least correctly addressed.
With his black plastic bull always in tow – his lucky charm – Abdel-Razak would drag his small family between Libya and his native Syria, moving and losing homes, standing in endless lines, and arguing with far too many people. Living in constant flux, “refined and delicate” Riad remains the perpetual outsider who never speaks quite enough Arab, who watches from afar and can sometimes adapt, who observes the world around him with a mixture of innocent acceptance and ageless wisdom.
His father’s pronouncements are endless, his mother’s responses rarely heard. Extended family come and go – and sometimes have to be avoided. He’s a precocious artist. He’s often called a Jew as a matter of grave insult. He witnesses the senseless murder of a puppy. He watches his brother eat roach eggs. Growing up under the control of revolving dictators – including his pan-Arabist father who dreams of staging a coup – Riad’s discordant, peripatetic childhood will one day make him, or so his father dreams, the titular “Arab of the future.”
Already a mega-bestseller in France, this first installment arrives Stateside already lauded with international accolades and awards. Its timing seems serendipitous, as well. [Volume 2 hit French shelves in June, with an English version available soon, oh please?] Sattouf, who left the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo less than a year before the tragic January 2015 massacre, uses his earliest memories to question and explore, entertain and illuminate. With our contemporary societies splintered far too often by cultural, ethnic, political, (fill-in-the-blank) clashes, Sattouf’s memoir undoubtedly proves to be a rare gift of insight and understanding.
Tidbit: Just learned that volume 2 is scheduled for September 2016. And the final installment should hit in the fall of 2017. Patience ain’t my virtue, but thrilled the rest of the story is in production! Yippppeeeee and whooo hoooooooo!
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2014 (France), 2015 United States