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Culture

Comic books of childhood under Arab dictators grip France

© Riad Sattouf, Allary Editions

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2015-06-17

The much-awaited second volume of "The Arab of the Future" by Riad Sattouf, a French cartoonist of Syrian origin, hit the newsstands across France this week and is already being hailed as one of the great stories of childhood.

Little Riad, his blond curls “blowing in the wind like a Californian actress,” is back on French bookshelves. These happen to be the winds that blew through the Arab world in the early 1980s, a disquieting portent of things to come, and French readers can’t seem to get enough of it – or anything, for that matter, that emerges from Sattouf’s drawing board.

A graphic novelist and film director of Franco-Syrian origin, Sattouf is a familiar figure in a country that takes its comic books tradition very seriously. His 2014 graphic novel, “L’Arabe du Futur,” was a French best-seller and won this year’s top Fauve d’Or award at the prestigious Angoulême festival.

Cover of the English translation of "The Arab of the future", which hits US bookshelves in October. © Metropolitan Books

A US edition, titled “The Arab of the Future,” will be published by Metropolitan Books in October.

Recounting his early, impossibly nomadic childhood spent in the shadow of three dictators – Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Syria’s Hafez Assad and his Syrian-born father -- Sattouf’s 2014 graphic novel was an instant success in France, with more than 200,000 copies sold.

Now he’s back with a sequel, “L’Arabe du Futur 2,” a 150-page comic book that picks up where the first edition left the five-year-old: sobbing as his family boards a Syrian Air flight to his father’s homeland.

Part one of “The Arab of the Future” unfolds between 1978 and 1984 and is dominated by Gaddafi’s Libya, where Sattouf’s father took up a post as a university professor. In a May 2014 interview with FRANCE 24 (in French) Sattouf explained why he chose to unveil the narrative through the lens of a child. “I like the candid point-of-view of youth,” he explained. “When you’re young, you don’t judge, you admire your parents…I found it funny to show this through the eyes of a child…especially in Libya, where, everywhere, you see Gaddafi, who I found absolutely beautiful in his different uniforms, like a rock star.”

If Gaddafi’s unseen but profoundly felt presence overshadows part one, Syria’s Hafez Assad dominates the second volume, much of which unfolds in his father’s ancestral village of Ter Maaleh, near the western Syrian city of Homs. At an uncle’s home, where the little Franco-Syrian boy draws an inchoate version of former French President Georges Pompidou, a cousin quickly gives the figure a tuft of hair, darkens brows, adds a slim moustache and voila! Pompidou has turned into the Lion of Syria, Assad Senior.

Where men wear burkhas and women wage war

It was the revolt against the Lion of Syria’s son, current strongman Bashar al Assad, that inadvertently coalesced the idea of documenting his childhood, Sattouf told FRANCE 24 last year. When the war broke out in Syria, Sattouf was trying to get some of his family members from Homs to France, which turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare. “All the meetings that I had, I would meet immigration officials, civil servants who would say, ‘You really should do a comic book on this,’” explained Sattouf.

And so, the idea of a graphic memoir was born.

By the time Sattouf embarked on his “L’Arabe du Futur” project, the film maker-cartoonist was already a well-known figure in France, where his 2010 directorial debut was an instant success. Titled “Les Beaux Gosses,” (The French Kissers) the coming-of-age story of a teenage boy hopeless at securing a girlfriend won Sattouf the prestigious César award for best debut film.

Four years later, Sattouf pushed his humor to new heights with “Jacky au Royaume des Filles” (Jacky in the Kingdom of Women). Set in the Popular Democratic Republic of Bubunne, the satire is an eerie foretaste of the Islamic State group’s so-called caliphate – except with the gender roles mockingly reversed. In Bubunne, the men wear burkhas, look after their homes and huddle through public spaces while women are in power, command society and wage wars.

Sattouf’s work has also regularly appeared in French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. On January 7, the 37-year-old cartoonist was not present at the Charlie Hebdo editorial meeting when two gunmen entered the weekly’s Paris offices, killing 12 people including some of France’s most respected cartoonists.

Barely a month later, at the Angoulême festival, Satouff paid tribute to his slain colleagues. “This is a mixture of joy and sadness,” he told reporters shortly after accepting the Fauve d’Or award. “It’s a very unique period for me. Everyone is sad. But the important thing is to continue to make books and draw. This is what I try to do.”

'All-oppressive presence of cruel dictatorships'

While the initial response to the January 7 Charlie Hebdo attack saw overwhelming displays of solidarity among cartoonists and writers across the globe, some of that artistic consensus between French and English-language writers and cartoonists has since frayed.

The differences were highlighted earlier this year when more than 140 writers, including Pulitzer and National Book Award winners, joined a protest against a PEN America freedom of expression award for Charlie Hebdo.

In a letter voicing their protest, the writers noted that, “the magazine [Charlie Hebdo] seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.”

It would take a very thin-skinned critic to fault Sattouf’s “L’Arabe du Futur” series. Wide-eyed, yet perceptive, the book documents the wanderings of his mismatched parents – his bookish French mother and pan-Arabist father, Abdel-Razak Sattouf. In his quest to pursue the dream of a virile Arab nationalist identity – the Arab of the Future of the series title – Sattouf Senior exposes his son to a region stifled by dogma and dictatorships.

© Riad Sattouf, Allary Editions

Decades later, the winds of change swept some of these tyrants out of power but the endgame is nowhere in sight while the costs in human life, sectarian strife and political instability have been steep.

Sattouf’s portrayal of his father is often disquieting, but always honest. Bumbling across the region with loud-mouthed enthusiasm, his head crammed with grandiose pan-Arabist visions, blind to the hypocrisies and patriarchy around him or of what this spells for his long-suffering wife, Sattouf Senior isn’t exactly Woody Allen material. The children and cousins the blond, half-French boy encounters have not been schooled in Upper East Side niceties either. Anti-Semitic in Baathist default mode, cruel to animals just as the regime is cruel to citizens and men to women, politically horribly incorrect…This is the childhood that those who have grown up in traditional societies before moving to the so-called West will recognize and cringe at.

But in the end, Sattouf’s accounts of his childhood are a deeply personal recollection of a much-traveled youth that resonates with audiences across the world, notes Riva Hocherman, executive editor of Metropolitan Books, which is publishing the US edition of his memoirs. “Sattouf gives a rich, inside perspective of a world that we never get to see,” said Hocherman. “And it’s one that registers with all the more authenticity because it comes from the non-judgmental view of a child. Add to that the sly humor, the vivid picture of Riad’s complicated father and family, the all-oppressive presence of cruel dictatorships, and you have one of the great stories of childhood."
 

Date created : 2015-06-16

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