The Arab of the Future

I've just published  a review in The Nation of the first two volumes of French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf's The Arab of the Future (volume 1 is out in English). Sattouf grew up in Ghaddafi's Libya and above all in Hafez Al Assad's Syria and has penned a disturbing, affecting and darkly funny childhood memoir. 

It’s 1983, and a family has landed at the Damascus airport. The father, who has avoided military service, bribes his way into the country. Accompanying him are his foreign wife and small blond son. Outside the airport, Syria assails them. A scrum of screaming cab drivers fights over the startled new arrivals. Cabbies abandon the brawl and compose themselves on the sidelines, combing their hair and smoking cigarettes, until the last one left shouting—and close to keeling over from his exertions—hustles the family into his taxi. He ashes his cigarettes through the moving vehicle’s missing floorboard.
This scene of homecoming and culture shock falls about halfway through the first volume of The Arab of the Future, a graphic memoir by the French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf. The book delivers a vision of childhood that is both extreme and familiar: its terrors and painful revelations, the utter mystery and absolute power of adults, the sensory details that lodge forever in the memory. But Sattouf’s vision is also of the unusual childhood he lived in Moammar El-Gadhafi’s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, as well as in the shadow of his father and his delusions. The Arab of the Future blends a rueful backward glance at the early days of two dictatorships that finally imploded in the Arab Spring and an intimate indictment of the way boys were taught to be men.
Sattouf, who is 37 and lives in Paris, has directed two movies and written dozens of graphic novels, many of them focused on adolescence and sexual losers (one is called Virgin’s Manual, another No Sex in New York). Other work is drawn from life: For one piece, he spent 15 days in an elite French high school. Between 2004 and 2014, Sattouf contributed a weekly comic called “The Secret Life of Youth” to the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Based on scraps of life seen and heard on the streets and subways, it was preoccupied, like much of Sattouf’s work, with observing those moments of cruelty, violence, or strangeness that happen in plain sight but are generally passed over in silence, purposely ignored.

 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

The Arab of the Future

Here is a review I wrote for the LRB blog of the comic L'Arabe du Futur, by Syrian-French comic artist Riad Sattouf. It's a very accomplished, very troubling, work (and should be out in English soon). 

In Libya, where his father accepts a teaching post, the family lose their university housing immediately to squatters who invoke Gaddafi’s ban on private property. Sattouf’s mother, Clementine, nearly gets into trouble after she breaks into hysterical laughter reading out propaganda on the radio. Sattouf remembers the crowds jostling to buy unripe bananas and Tang, the afternoons spent playing unsupervised with the children of other foreign professors. In a child’s worldview, the strictures of a dictatorial regime are no more bizarre than most other rules.
When Sattouf’s father decides to take his family back to Syria, things turn almost farcically awful. He didn’t do his military service, so has to bribe his way past army officers at the airport. The family waits as a group of cab drivers has a brawl over who will take them. Back in the village, at the family home, the women sit in a separate room and eat the men’s leftovers. Sattouf’s father discovers that his brother has sold his land. The village is full of rubbish and feral little boys who wave sticks and threaten Riad.


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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

review: Drawing his way to freedom

Amazigh, itineraire d'hommes libres ("itinerary of free men") is a graphic novel by the Moroccan artist Mohamed Arejdal (written with Cedric Liano). It tells the story of Arejdal's long, tortuous, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to emigrate illegally to Spain. It captures the teenage rebelliousness and nonchalance that lead to the decision to make the trip; and the casual mistreatment that takes place along the smuggling route. Much of the story takes place in the Canary Island, where Arejdal ends up in a succession of detention centers. It is there that a social worker gives him some art supplies. When he is forcefully repatriated to Morocco, he ends up studying at the Fine Arts Institute in Tetouan; his long trek in search of European opportunity ultimately becomes material for some of his art projects. His book concludes with him being granted the much-sought-after  European visa to attend a biennale in Italy.

 

Regarding the title: Arejdal is Amazigh, meaning that he belongs to the country's indigenous Berber population (the word means "free man" or "rebel"). Most Moroccans do, ethnically, but only some identify as Amazigh. At least a third of the country speaks Amazigh languages-- which have historically been marginalized -- as their first language rather than Arabic. The issue of language and identity here is a fraught and complicated one. 


Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Sexual harassment and super-heroines

The online comic Qahera shows an avenging munaqaba fighting  sexual harassment in Cairo. It is a very powerful work, which captures perfectly the social dynamics surrounding harassment (the police officer who tells the victim: "Honestly, you have to look at what you're wearing, too," and that if she files a charge against her harasser, "you'll ruin his future.") 

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Although I tend to think that vigilante fantasies (and I have many) -- and real vigilantism, like that of some anti-harassment groups, who catch and beat and spray-paint offenders -- far from being empowering are actually the expression of despair and rage. Sexual harassment is so pervasive that we can only counter it in extreme, even fantastical, ways. 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.