“The Arab of the Future”

The Arab of the Future is the much-acclaimed graphic memoir by Riad Sattouf, a thirty-seven year old French cartoonist of Syrian origin. A former cartoonist at the controversial Charlie Hebdo, Riad Sattouf’s memoir is a graphic retelling of his childhood in France, Libya, and Syria with striking relevance to the times we are living through in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings against the old regimes. Riad’s father Abdul-Razak is the anti-hero of the story, a Syrian man from Homs who studies history in France. Abdul-Razak is a vehement pan-Arabist and follows events in the Arab world closely, never quite feeling at home in France, despite having married a French woman. Clementine, Riad’s mother, is the voice of reason in the family, even as she begrudgingly goes along with Abdel-Razak’s escapades and delusions of pan-Arabist grandeur.

After turning down a job offer from Oxford, Abdel-Razak accepts a position in Libya and moves there with his family in pursuit of his dream of living in a pan-Arabist utopia. Their lives in Libya are filled with insecurity and austerity – Gaddafi had prohibited putting locks on houses because “In our People’s State, houses are for everyone.” In practical terms, Gaddafi’s attempts at social revolution meant that the Sattoufs were constantly in danger of losing their home, as others were quick to come and claim it for themselves. Food shortages result in bananas often being the only food available for long periods of time. This is explained as being part of Gaddafi’s political project. “Our leader adores bananas, my sister,” a man distributing food tells Riad’s mother when she questions the sole food offering, “He says it’s the fruit of the people.”

The family then returns to France, but Abdel-Razak had not yet given up his dreams of serving the Arab nation. He applies to jobs in Syria and eventually accepts one as a professor in his hometown of Ter Maaleh, a small village near Homs. The family’s arrival in Syria serves as a foreshadowing of their experiences to come. The airport is adorned with portraits of Hafez al-Assad, and at passport control, the Syrian border police immediately question Abdel-Razak regarding the status of his mandatory military service, which he had not yet completed. After a brief private chat with one of the officers, Abdel-Razak hands him a bribe. The officer responds by hugging him and exclaiming, “Ahleen fiik belwatan.”

Abdel-Razak attempts to reconcile his desires and visions of what Arab society should be like— “the Arab of the future”—with the disappointing realities he encounters in Libya and Syria. The solution for Abdel-Razak is to recalibrate his expectations or rationalize the harsh reality as politically expedient rather than express disappointment with the leadership at his unfulfilled expectations.

Sattouf recounts many episodes from his childhood in the memoir that are off-putting, to say the least. In one scene, Riad and his friend (who are young children) roam around with a real pistol, looking for someone to kill while they chant, “God is the greatest! God is the greatest! He is above the plots of the aggressors. And he is the best ally of the oppressed,” quoting Gaddafi. When Riad moves to Syria, due to his different appearance (he is pale-skinned with long blonde hair), the other children tease him by referring to him as “yahudi,” which is considered to be the ultimate insult. When Riad’s father heard the children calling Riad “yahudi,” he chases and beats them with shoes while shouting “Mine yahudi ya kalb! Mine yahudi?”  He then walks away muttering, “Stupid filthy Arab retards!” In another somewhat climactic scene, a group of young children impale a puppy on a pitchfork, which leads an elderly man to approach them and swiftly behead the puppy with a shovel. This causes Riad’s mother Clementine to become hysterical and run out into the street shouting in shock and disbelief.

The Arab of the Future can be read in many ways. In certain contexts and by certain audiences, it would be read simply as a scathing critique of Arab politics and society. Its cartoonish—verging on Orientalist—depiction of Arabs as anti-Semitic, sectarian, unclean, and submissive to authoritarianism doesn’t exactly help combat long-held western stereotypes about Arabs. If anything, this graphic memoir may simply serve to reinforce existing prejudices regarding Arab ‘backwardness.’

Nevertheless, there is something tragically honest about Sattouf’s recollections. In a profile of Riad Sattouf in The New Yorker, Adam Shatz asked several Arab intellectuals about their impressions of the book. The Syrian poet Adonis—who is quite hostile to the Syrian opposition—and Subhi Hadidi—a writer and translator who is a member of the opposition—both told Shatz that the book was an accurate depiction of life in Syria during those years. Shatz even stated that a group of Algerians who had grown up in socialist Algeria identified with the book and claimed that Sattouf “might as well have been writing about their childhood.”

So, what is it about Sattouf’s memoir that appeals to those who may be critical of its reception amongst western audiences? While it may be tempting to read the Arab of the Future as a vicious condemnation of Arab culture and society (as I’m sure many non-Arabs and Arabs alike have read it), the book also exposes the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the brand of Arab nationalism that was prevalent in the 1960s, and 1970s. These inconsistencies are manifest in the clumsy idealism of Sattouf’s father. Abdel-Razak is militantly secular and believes religion keeps Arab society stagnant, yet that does not stop him from using viciously sectarian rhetoric against Alawites and Shiites. As a pan-Arabist, he believes in the unity of the Arab peoples, yet he feels nothing but scorn for Arabs. He resolves this contradiction by repeatedly entrusting the destiny of Arabs to strong men, claiming that this is what is needed until the Arabs are “ready” to fulfill his own vision of what an Arab should be. When challenged by one of his wife’s relatives on the authoritarianism of Assad and Gaddafi, Sattouf’s father responds, “Of course they’re dictators! I’m not a moron! But it’s different with Arabs…You have to be tough with them. You have to force them to get an education, make them go to school…If they decide for themselves, they do nothing. They’re lazy-ass bigots, even though they have the same potential as everyone else…Gaddafi’s not stupid. He’s forcing the Arabs to change.” He concludes his outburst by stating that once this transformation occurs the Arabs would “free themselves from the old dictators.” His wife asks, “And what will they get instead? Young dictators?” History, of course, would prove her correct.

The Arab of the Future is a story of two types of failures: the political failures of pan-Arabism that Sattouf’s father espouses and the social failures of the places he inhabits as a child. The strength of Sattouf’s work is that, being a memoir of childhood, he is simply being faithful to his memories of those years. We are forced to engage with his narrative no matter how uncomfortable it makes us; it also requires us to grapple with the political failures and contradictions that he recounts. Yet, that unmediated honesty is also its weakness. In the unstructured chaos of memory and plainspoken reporting of his experiences, Sattouf leaves out causality. This, of course, is not unusual for a memoir, especially a memoir told from the point of view of a child. But for a memoir with such profound political and social implications for our time, leaving it up to us to draw our own conclusions to explain why the two societies he portrays are at the brink of total collapse feels terribly risky.

Sattouf does explore the politics around said social failure, but instead of probing the relationship between the two, he presents them as if they are one and the same. In Sattouf’s memoir we don’t see how the political and economic failures could lead to such a social breakdown. They are addressed in a manner that implicitly suggests that they emerged simultaneously, as if to say, “The Arab countries: broken politics, broken societies.” The drawbacks of such an approach quickly become evident: absent political and economic factors to explain social failure, the book lends itself to culturalist explanations.

Nevertheless, Sattouf presents a portrait of Arab society and politics that must be reckoned with. These are undeniable historical failures that cannot be written off as mere dishonesty pandering to western Orientalists. But societies that are broken and divided do not emerge in a vacuum. Political authoritarianism, economic catastrophe and underdevelopment, as well as the dependency wrought by imperialism have wide-ranging effects on social cohesion and resilience. It is within this context that Sattouf’s portrayal of the failure of Arab societies must be understood.