“The Arab of the Future” by Riad Sattouf — a Part Two

Finished the second volume of former Hebdo cartoonist Sattouf’s graphic-novel memoir of his ’80s childhood in Syria (and a bit in France). Here’s my earlier post. Hate to say it, but it’s a bit more of a slog than the first volume, not least because life in elementary-school classrooms, as we all know, is duller than the previous life spent running around free. I’ll return to the whole series when the third book appears (I don’t think it’s even come out in France yet), but there’s a couple points Sattouf makes that are both complex and particularly understated but well done.

Sattouf extends his intricate portrait of his father, Abdul-Razak, a low-level professor who’s both an ass-kisser and a bullshitter and almost unconsciously crude and cruel to his wife.  Sattouf takes pains to show more than a few people despised Abdul-Razak and to underscore that at least some of his horrid cruelty — blasting a batch of sparrows with a shotgun — sprang from sheer ignorance and cultural deprivation. He’s a symbol of how hard it is to move forward if you start so far behind. And won’t admit how far behind you are (“Syria’s doctors are the greatest in the world.”)

Sattouf also zaps you with insights into how cultures of violence and prejudice work to perpetuate themselves. His first teacher is this hefty woman who presides over an all-boys class and doles out corporal punishment — whamming their hands with a rod — for the slightest infraction (not only talking in class, but not getting your patriotic beanie quick enough). It’s clear that on some level she does this not merely to “let off steam” as Sattouf says, but to take revenge on vulnerable members of a gender who have crapped on her from day one. (Of course, the male teacher who abruptly replaces her without explanation is even more of a physically abusive brute. As I think I’ve noted elsewhere, my only male elementary teacher would be fired if not sued nowadays if he doled out the knee-kicks and shoves he did to some of his boy students … including me.)

The prejudice part comes with Israelis, particularly soldiers, as the “bad guys” of Sattouf’s childhood games and his books (much to his credit, he details how “playing horse” was more liberating fun for his classmates). I was jolted to see that Mumtaz Al-Bahra, considered a very progressive kids’-magazine illustrator of the time, did the pictures for kids stories with Israeli soldiers presented as armed thugs.


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