Lost Illusions

As the most ambitious political forces in the Middle East seem to grow ever more messianic and apocalyptic, who, or what, is the Arab of the future? The Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf leaves the question hanging at the end of his Maus-like graphic memoir. The blond little boy at the center of Sattouf’s tale is, like most of the political and cultural forces shaping his life’s story, profoundly unsettled. Readers see him become charmed, bewildered, and eventually endangered by his father’s myopic enthusiasm for the pseudosecular, quasi-socialist dictatorships of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria.

The first volume in a projected trilogy, The Arab of the Future, subtitled A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978–1984, was published a year ago in French. Translations into fifteen languages have followed, including, now, English. The story begins when Sattouf is two, living in Paris with his mother, from Brittany, and his father, from Homs. In France, Sattouf is beloved by total strangers, who find his golden locks adorable. When his father moves the family to Libya, the children in their new neighborhood treat Sattouf like an alien, odd but harmless. When they move again to Syria, passive fascination yields to overt hostility: His own cousins beat the crap out of him whenever they can.

As Sattouf slowly learns the brutal art of Arabic cursing, his readers come to understand that his cousins are also bombarding him with the coarsest of insults—“filthy Jew,” “I fuck your mother’s mother’s father,” “fuck your God,” “Piss off! Go back to Israel!” Such tirades are spurred chiefly by the sight of his blond hair—not to mention his cousins’ staggering ignorance and propensity for violence. The book ends with Sattouf’s father, whose oblivious outlook is not so much a by-product of personal vanity or ideological delusion as the result of an inexplicably blind faith in an educational system that has clearly become one of the world’s great liabilities, insisting that his son’s formal schooling begin. “The Arab of the future goes to school,” he says. Sattouf quakes in fear, certain that when he enters their classroom, his cousins will kill him. The Arab of the future is doomed.

For a decade, until 2014, Sattouf drew a weekly cartoon for the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Titled “La vie secrète des jeunes” (“The Secret Life of Youth”), it recounted incidental encounters, eavesdropped conversations, and whimsical anecdotes from everyday life. But The Arab of the Future is not in any way predictive or forewarning of the Hebdo massacre; indeed, what makes Sattouf’s project both significant and compelling is the comparatively mundane and certainly nonprophetic quality of the author’s footloose formative years. In its tender rereading of the recent past, The Arab of the Future offers a chilling prehistory of the present moment, in which we appear to be entering the age of the Islamic State. The first installment of Sattouf’s story ends thirty years before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi undertook the death-cultish re-creation of the caliphate, but it shows the extent to which the region’s military despots, Gaddafi and the Assads in particular, have been complicit in and accountable for the existence and persistence of these extremist groups. And there are no alternatives in sight.

Sattouf tells movingly of a son’s reverence for his father and how it begins to crumble. In Libya, eyeing his father’s sketch of a Mercedes with square wheels, Sattouf realizes that he can draw much better than his old man. (His artistic talents are later recognized in France, which makes his grandmother worry: “Gifted? I hope not. Kids like that are OK at first, but they often end up retarded.”)

He also begins to perceive the widening gap between the dream of Arab nationalism that his father so fervently believes in and the reality of whole landscapes, whole countries creaking under shoddy, stalled construction. As seen through a child’s eyes, Gaddafi’s Libya is a bizarre, backward-reeling society. Sattouf records the omnipresent copies of the great leader’s political catechism, known as the “Green Book,” and marathon television broadcasts of Gaddafi in full military regalia, while also evoking the chaos of everyday life: neglected Roman ruins, abandoned building sites, long lines at the food cooperatives (where bananas provide the only sustenance for weeks on end), free public housing, no keys, and families of wandering squatters. Assad’s Syria, meanwhile, is an abomination—a twilight zone of corruption, paranoia among the security services, tribal and familial betrayals, polluted reservoirs, smoking refineries, and gleaming grain silos. Against this backdrop, the young Sattouf sees children defecating in the streets, boys pissing into the spouts of water fountains, and everywhere men fighting in mobs with raw, mounting desperation.

Sattouf’s parents meet as university students in Paris. His father is in France to avoid military service in Syria and to prepare himself for a life in academia. He woos Sattouf’s mother with a mix of persistence and obliviousness (not fluent in French, he’s unable to understand her as she repeatedly tells him to, please, go away). She succumbs largely out of politeness. And yet, as they marry and have children, they form an admirable family unit. Sattouf’s father turns down a job at Oxford to take up an associate-professor post in Tripoli. His mother agrees to pack up their first kid and go, so the three of them set off on an adventure.

The first sign that life in Libya will be strange comes early, when the family returns home from an outing one day to discover another family living in their apartment. “But, brother, this is my house,” a man tells them. “It was empty. . . . The Leader gave all citizens the right to live in unoccupied houses, as you know.” Sattouf’s father threatens to call the authorities, but since the other father is a policeman, the elder Sattouf is left to gather his wife, son, and all their belongings and look for another empty apartment, which he finds, eventually, in a nearly abandoned building in a ghetto for expats. There, in the hallways, landings, and foyers, Sattouf makes a few friends, learns patriotic songs, and plays with toy pistols. Despite the sparseness of his drawings, Sattouf slips in a wealth of background information, and so we are treated to breakneck histories of the rise and fall of Arab nationalism, Gaddafi’s bloodless coup against Libya’s former monarch, King Idris, and the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 and how they affected the collective psyche of the Arab world.

When Gaddafi’s revolution begins to slide off the rails after a mandate that Libyan workers swap jobs, turning teachers into farmers and vice versa, Sattouf’s father, a dilettante in the realm of rugged politics, decides it’s time to go. (His wife has already lost her job as an on-air radio reporter for bursting out laughing as she tried to deliver an absurdly scripted account of the day’s news.) In an example of how Libya’s leader squandered the resources of the country, enriching even the lowliest government employees through capital flight, a handsome salary is deposited for Sattouf’s father in an offshore account in the UK, which he retrieves some time later during an extended stay in France.

Detail from Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978–1984, 2015.
Detail from Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978–1984, 2015.

After Libya, the family takes a break on the French coast, living in an old fisherman’s house in Brittany with Sattouf’s maternal grandmother. His father behaves badly: He grows a mustache, gives his son a plastic gun, and gradually becomes convinced the house is unsafe and harbors ghosts. His mother, meanwhile, is pregnant with Sattouf’s little brother. Soon after Yahya is born, the family sets off again, for Syria.

They immediately stumble into family drama: Sattouf’s paternal uncle has sold land that didn’t belong to him, causing strife among the men and their sons. (And yes, the women’s views on the matter are unsolicited. In Sattouf’s world, the women eat their leftovers and refrain from speaking.) Sattouf, still blond, still precious, speaking a posh-accented French, provokes amusement in a stern-faced soldier at the airport and an outright attack by stick-wielding hooligans his age. The landscape is flat, putrid, unforgiving. A visit to Homs reveals one horror after another: Chicken merchants chuck dead chicks into a pile on the street. The restaurants are rancid. Everyone stares; no one smiles. There are portraits of Hafez al-Assad everywhere.

But Sattouf’s childhood is, on the whole, quite charmed. His parents rarely fight and his mother snaps at him only when her patience is well and truly tried. His relationship with his paternal grandmother provides some of the most surprisingly touching moments in the book, as when she leans in with her tongue to lick a piece of grit from his itching eyeball. For every instance of cruelty Sattouf sees—a boy blithely pounding rocks into the body of his donkey, for example—he also observes moments of real tenderness. From his parents’ window, he watches a mother hanging laundry in the rain, a baby playing at her feet. Then she lifts him by the leg and smothers him in kisses.

The Arab of the Future shares the sweetness, if not the stealth feminism or punk sensibility, of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir, Persepolis, which recounted the travails of a girl growing up in postrevolutionary Iran. But where there is a clear line connecting Satrapi’s heroine—a cartoon version of her younger self—to the protagonists of, say, the Green Movement in Tehran circa 2009, Sattouf is ultimately telling a much sadder story. No one in The Arab of the Future, not even the young Sattouf himself, appears poised to represent any of the democratic forces of the early Arab Spring. The regime thugs are there, as are the religious zealots, the thieves, the mercenaries, and more. Between Sattouf and his father, the only model for a fulfilling life seems to involve exile, preferably in a place as far away as possible. Two forthcoming volumes may prove otherwise, but so far in Sattouf’s rendering, the future of the Arab world looks quite grim.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer and critic based in Beirut.