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REVIEW: Riad Sattouf Breaks From The Traditional Mold of Middle Eastern Media With His Two Graphic Memoirs

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Nathaniel Bailey


Riad Sattouf breaks from the traditional mold of media regarding the Middle East with his two graphic memoirs, The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984 and The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985. First published in France, The Arab of the Future quickly rose in popularity. Later translated by Sam Taylor, Sattoufs’s work has been gaining ground with American audiences after being featured in the New York Times and The New Yorker. Both volumes give reconstructed memories of a childhood, created with hindsight that unpacks history while providing unique parallels to today – all while never straying from conveying the ignorance of childhood.

The Arab of the Future follows the story of the Sattouf family from the perspective of Riad, the son of a Syrian father and a French mother. The Sattouf family moves throughout the volumes, from France to Libya, then back to France, and then to Syria. Each change of geography is noted by a different background color in the art, roughly corresponding to the emotion of the physical space.  

Volume one provides us with the usual tale of life in Libya and Syria during the 80s—desolate, cold, narrow-minded, thuggish and corrupt, but with small glimpses of beauty and humanity that showcase the personality of the characters and the people living in those societies.

In volume two, Riad goes to school – something that has been impending through volume one – and readers are placed in the mindset of a young child making friends, learning to read and write Arabic, and slowly beginning to understand the world that he has been moved around and placed in by his parents. As Riad grows up, volume two begins to show his family dynamics: his fathers industrious and blustery personality and his mothers attempts in finding her voice.

Although both volumes of The Arab of the Future play off of each other, one being a continuation of the previous, it is possible to read and enjoy one with out reading the other due to Sattoufs unique and beautiful style.

There are many different ways for expressing Middle East affairs in media. Informational and nonfiction books are essential resources that untangle contradicting facts and analysis, providing crucial information to those who have been studying for years as well as those who are just beginning to learn about what is happening in the Arab World. No matter what ones experience is in these fields, it can always be useful to look with an alternative lens. Sattoufs Arab of the Future provides us with two new lenses for us to use: One, a story from the eyes of a child, the simple questioning that unclutters larger questions and assumptions, and two, through the media format of a graphic novel, giving us pictures and colors to supplement and enhance our understanding. Together, these volumes are a unique, crucial, and timely work that, although the story they are telling is a common experience in the Arab world, lets us look at it in a new light and from a new angle.

The Arab of the Future does not come with out its pitfalls. It has been criticized in its single story approach to life in the Arab World, assumed that it is seeking to speak for all experiences through a medium that is often viewed as childish. However, Sattoufs work can be one to enhance rather than simplify, uniquely putting us in the shoes of one child in the Middle East where we can be one step closer to understanding winder narratives with his memoir.

Riad Sattouf was a former cartoonist for the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, where he published a weekly comic strip from 2004 to 2014. As the only writer of Middle Eastern descent at Charlie Hebdo for over a decade, Sattouf left the magazine a few months before two Parisians of Algerian descent stormed the offices killing nine of his former colleges. 

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 Follow Nathaniel on Twitter @taerg_eht_etan

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