Sara Hendery on Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future
It starts, for me, with an image of a bull. Burly and dark, hard, like forehead lines, proud and steaming—to some, a symbol of fear, to others, a symbol of home. Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984, is centered, subtly, on the complicated and composite definitions of the places we call home. Sattouf’s text, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, is predominantly rooted in Sattouf’s childhood being fitfully pulled in different directions of residence in Paris, Syria, and Libya. Riad’s father brings a bull figurine to all these homes, a ritual.
When I was young, I was more interested in creating homes within my home instead of finding home in new ones, as my family didn’t move around as much as Riad’s. My sisters and I built forts by the creek, stayed in our treehouse until the sun slept, discovered and re-discovered the best hiding spots in our overgrown back yard. I perpetually embarked upon the old-new, what had been in front of me my whole small life: the blackberry bushes on the hill, the snake family under the bridge, inventing and reinventing my yearning for comfortable space. The Arab of the Future is a book about a different kind of yearning. It is a book of placement and displacement, of where does one belong?, but is also a book about the complexity of culture, family, and a young boy cranking his neck to see his father’s vision for and of the world—clear or not. I have always looked at my own father with the same crooked neck, and I would bet millions of people across the globe have the same throbbing cricks that pinch them when they hear the small but melodic word “dad.”
… the teaching of violence is slow but massive, and moves, creepily, like a fog.
As a graphic memoir, The Arab of the Future begs for the reader to embark on a sensual experience: to smell, listen, taste, touch—if possible—place and time. Sensory details of Riad’s family’s homes, down to the smell of oranges or onions alongside a road they are travelling on, are denoted with thin arrows sprouting out of the image frames. The actual images of the book, too, do a lot of the talking without text present. Every character of the text embodies, or is engulfed by, one or many of their personal physical traits. For young Riad, it’s his long, flowing blonde hair that swallows his face like a Tootsie-Pop. He looks different than his dark-haired, Syrian father, Abdul-Razak, a sign that he doesn’t quite belong. In childhood, the misplaced hair, the too-long legs, the ears just a little to the left, anything that sets us “apart,” is unequivocally petrifying. While I have not lived in the spaces where the narrator has lived, I have certainly inhabited the space of childhood, and this book transports me back there. Still, I think about sitting in a creek when I was five and feeling the slick, tongue-like touch of a salamander by my foot. I will never forget that creek, but I will also never forget how my father preferred I wear big black clunky boots, which I rarely wore, if I planned on adventuring in the water. Our senses often tell us what we know, and what we know we’re not doing quite right.
Abdul-Razak, and his wife Clementine, a French woman, are confronted with different perceptions of reality as they move from place to place, the bull propped, still, in their living room—what is a “real” man, a “real” citizen, but also, what is right and what is wrong? How does the answer change from place to place? When they witness a group of Syrian boys killing a dog with a pitchfork, Clementine argues Riad shouldn’t be attending school with boys like that. Abdul-Razak reminds his son, “Don’t forget, you’re not French, you’re Syrian! And in Syria, boys take their father’s side. Period.” A harsh painting unfolds of Riad’s father who, to put it plainly, is at times undermining, prejudiced, dominating, misogynist. But for young Riad, and as in the eyes of many children, “Back then, I didn’t understand very much. But I was sure of one thing: my father was fantastic.” When we’re young, adults are gods, omniscient oracles of space and time. Did I draw a jeweled crown over my father’s head in art class when I was ten? Of course, I did. It is easy to forget adults were young once too, or truly are capable of never having “grown up.”
The Arab of the Future is a portrayal of an innocent child’s-eye-view of what one, at some point in learning to be human, must choose to do—to absorb, dispel, or transfix upon what one is exposed to. “At that age,” Riad says, “I had great difficulty working out the difference between dream and reality.” I think of the image of a bull in an arena and the symbolism of their pairing—a bull lured in by color, a fight between human and animal. It seems an almost fantastical reality. How do we make the choices between right and wrong? Sometimes we do it silently. The inability to speak and the absence of language, or, the impending presence of silence, is resonant and formidable in this book. The reader notices Clementine’s waning disposition through her own quietude; she loses weight, her questions, laments, and worries go unattended by her husband, and soon, her image almost completely surrenders to the background of every graphic as she slowly pushes a stroller, dissolving. When Abdul-Razak gives Riad a gift of a toy gun, the object nearly the size of Riad’s own chest, the image frame shows him pointing the gun at his pregnant mother’s belly. The heavy weight of Abdul-Razak’s gifts, words, and lessons offered to his son, especially in this moment, of being taught to curse one’s enemies with violence, can be overlooked if the reader isn’t paying enough attention. I believe that is the point—the teaching of violence is slow but massive, and moves, creepily, like a fog.
But, did I mention a bull?
In The Arab of the Future it often feels that the narrator is berating Abdul-Razak, and in turn, somewhat chiding Arab thinking. But it is not, in all ways, a harangue of Riad’s father. Abdul-Razak, at the beginning of the book, shows Riad the good luck charm bull that he carries with him from place to place: “For my father, that always meant he was home.” Abdul-Razak is proud, even affectionate, for this object, a version of himself he rarely expresses. The bull is a symbol of sentiment that Abdul-Razak, too, has entered the world from many entryways, and is often trying to grasp at the things he believes are correct, even if at times, unjust. The reference to the bull is planted in the tradition carried along within a family, and ultimately, a young person’s desire to so fervently carry within themselves the marking of some kind of lineage. “Home.” At the heart of this graphic memoir is notions of origin, and moving on, origin, and moving on, origin, and … what now? It is beautiful and devastating all in one breath, like most things of unparalleled importance to humans. As a person who has moved from the South to the Midwest, from my mother and father’s warm, delicate home to the loud, often-startling movement of my now-city, I wake in the night unsure of where I physically am, if I have been stolen or if I have moved myself to this new place. What now? I think.
It was very early in my life that I realized it was not my actual fears, but the threat of my fears that were most terrorizing. My father once yelled his deep bellow from the mailbox of our Southern home. Come here! You have to see this! I ran so fast I stumbled over my walnut-knobby feet. My father had found a dead bee nestled in the dirt of his garden. Here, he said, plopping the bee into my hands, First-Communion-cupped. You will never be able to see a bee so close. The threat of its sting, an experience I had not yet had, was enough to keep me dizzy and whirling on playgrounds to avoid them, but now that the possibility wasn’t there, I was fearless. I stroked its bloated striped tummy and leaned in. I love you, little bee. The bee, though, resurrected, or contained a kind of fury inside of it that even after death slumbered in its soul. It stung the center of my palm, near the place where the creases meet, right around the bones, which nipped like a long-needle shot. I didn’t get to see if the bee had woken, or if the sting was a mishap; I had already thrown its body down on the ground and ran away from my father just as quickly as I had run up. It did not occur to me at the time that I had threatened the bee, but it was the bee that had forsaken me, that it was my father who had caused me harm, that it was me who was living in a deep and marooned terror. My father lost his crown—how dare he put me in danger? That wasn’t the reality. My father was sure I would find home in that little bee, that it would have been another one of my old-new discoveries through the lens he believed would keep me young, curious, trying; even if he did, accidentally, put me in danger. It takes a special distance from pain to appreciate stinging.
When we strip away the threat of fear, it is then that we learn most about our homes, no matter how many there are, and who takes us to them—they will hurt you, but they will build you, too.
I never not notice bees—I thank my father for letting me probe them for more than their danger, but their diligence. In an imaginary conversation I have with Riad Sattouf, we talk about stunning duplicity.
The Arab of the Future is, indeed, about a family’s tectonic movement to different homes, but it is also about the nature of being voiceless, about being a child, any child. When I was a young girl, I remember writing in diaries and keeping them open like jaws on my bed so that someone would read them. Isn’t anyone listening? When someone plucks us from the floor, it is difficult not to be molded by them.
The first image of The Arab of the Future is Riad’s small body sitting in the safe palm of his father’s hand, a literal vision of molding, seemingly saving his son from something. But from what? What or who does he need saving from? Sattouf leaves that up to the reader to decide. Flip the book over and on the back cover there is an image of a bull that looks almost in movement, green-eyed and anxious, which offers some semblance of innocent and gracious hope, one thinks, or at least, of the future.
Sara Hendery is from North Carolina but is currently in Chicago earning her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She is an assistant editor for Hotel Amerika and her writing can be found in Creative Nonfiction.
The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984 by Riad Sattouf • Metropolitan Books, 2015 • 160 pages