Adonis Diaries

Archive for December 12th, 2015

Memoir in cartoon of Riad Sattouf’s “The Arab of the Future”

A Charlie Hebdo Cartoonist

Note: I finished the first volume of this very funny memoir: Direct, detailed and to the point. Sattouf describes things as they are, better than I could describe in words

One of Riad Sattouf’s favorite places in Paris is the Musée du Quai Branly, a temple of ethnographic treasures from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, not far from the Eiffel Tower.

One morning in mid-July, Sattouf, a French-Syrian comic-book artist who has recently emerged as France’s best-known graphic novelist, took me there, along with his year-old son, his son’s Ivorian nanny, and her three small daughters.

He was dressed like a college student, with jeans, a black Lacoste T-shirt, white Stan Smith sneakers, and backpack.

We were met in the lobby by Stéphane Martin, the museum’s president, who is a long-standing admirer of Sattouf’s work and has commissioned him to produce a graphic novel about the museum for its tenth anniversary, next year.

Andrew Bossone shared a link.
Riad Sattouf’s “The Arab of the Future” has tapped into French anxieties about Islam—and become the biggest hit since “Persepolis.”
No French Presidency is complete without a legacy-defining monument; the Quai Branly, which opened in 2006, was Jacques Chirac’s. Designed by Jean Nouvel, it is a museum of so-called “first art,” or what used to be called primitive art.
The interior—hushed, ceremonial lighting, earth-tone colors, leather upholstery—suggests the study of a retired colonial administrator, and an aura of tribal kitsch pervades the place. The Quai Branly is at once a voluptuous tribute to the riches of French ethnography (several of the pieces came from the collections of Claude Lévi-Strauss and others) and a reminder of a history of overseas plunder.

Martin has been involved in the museum since its conception, in 1998. I asked him if he had a background in ethnography. “No, I’m an énarque,” he said, as if that explained everything. (Énarques are graduates of the École Nationale d’Administration, a mandarin class who more or less run France.)

Sattouf listened quietly to Martin as we strolled along the long nave where most of the museum’s artifacts are exhibited. At one point, the children wandered off and Martin took the opportunity to show Sattouf “a little porno,” directing his attention to a sculpture from Papua New Guinea that depicted a group of young men being penetrated by their elders.

By filling them with sperm, Martin explained, the elders were inducting the next generation into leadership. Sattouf looked riveted and took photographs. He said, “What I love about this museum is that you see that in every society gender relations are structured to preserve the power of men, but it’s always achieved in a different way.”

Masculine power and its violent rituals are at the center of Sattouf’s work.

His caustic, often brutal vision of how boys are groomed to become men has brought him acclaim far beyond the underground-comics scene where he first made his name. Last year, he scored his greatest success so far when he published the first volume of a graphic memoir, “The Arab of the Future,” recounting his childhood, which was split between France and two of the most closed societies of the Arab world, Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. (The first volume is now being published here; in France, a second volume appeared in May.)

Not since “Persepolis,” Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of her childhood in Khomeini’s Iran, has a comic book achieved such crossover appeal in France.

In Paris, I kept running into people who had just read Sattouf’s comic book, among them a former president of Doctors Without Borders, a young official in the foreign ministry who had worked throughout the Middle East, and an economist for the city of Paris.

“The Arab of the Future” has become that rare thing in France’s polarized intellectual climate: an object of consensual rapture, hailed as a masterpiece in the leading journals of both the left and the right.

Sattouf has achieved prominence as a cartoonist of Muslim heritage at a time when French anxieties about Islam have never been higher and when cartooning has become an increasingly dangerous trade.

For a decade, Sattouf was the only cartoonist of Middle Eastern extraction at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, where he drew an acid series on Parisian street life, “The Secret Life of Youth.”

He left just a few months before two jihadists stormed the offices and shot dead twelve people, including nine of his former colleagues. The attackers, brothers of Algerian ancestry who were born in Paris, said that they were avenging the Prophet Muhammad for the magazine’s mockery of the Muslim faith.

Sattouf, whose teens were spent in a housing project in Brittany, often jokes self-consciously about his success. One day, as we waited to be seated at a stylish little sushi restaurant decorated with Godzilla posters, I asked him if he often ate out. “I can already see the first lines in The New Yorker,” he replied. “Riad Sattouf has lots of money because his book is a best-seller. He’s a rich Arab. He spends all his days eating in expensive restaurants.”

This was one of the few times I’d heard Sattouf refer to himself as an Arab.

He claims to have forgotten the Arabic he learned in Syria, has no Arab friends, doesn’t follow the news from the Middle East, and knows no one in the Paris-based Syrian opposition.

He told me that the first and only time he’d set foot in the Arab world since he left Syria was a weekend in Marrakech a few years ago. “It left me uneasy,” he said. “I had the feeling people were suffering from a lack of freedom, while Europeans were in bars eating tartare de dorade.”

Sattouf loathes nationalism and is fond of the saying, paraphrased from Salman Rushdie, “A man does not have roots, he has feet.”

He says that he feels “closer to a comic-book artist from Japan than I do to a Syrian or a French person.”

Yet he has become famous for a book set largely in two countries where some of the most violent convulsions since the Arab Spring have unfolded. “The Arab of the Future” has, in effect, made him the Arab of the present in France.

Sattouf was born in 1978, in Paris. His mother and father—whom he calls Clémentine and Abdel-Razak, respectively, in his memoir—met in the early seventies in a cafeteria at the Sorbonne. According to the book, his father, who was finishing up a dissertation in history there, was born in a Syrian village Ter Maalet, 7 km from Homs. In the south, you see the high mountain of Kornet Sawda in Lebanon.  His mother was from a Catholic family in Brittany.

When Sattouf was two, his father accepted a university job in Libya, where Qaddafi was building his “state of the masses.” Like many Arabs of his generation, Abdel-Razak Sattouf was a fervent believer in the pan-Arab dream. He hoped that the region would overcome the legacy of colonialism and recover its strength under the leadership of charismatic modernizers—secular autocrats like his hero Gamal Abdel Nasser. By moving back to the Arab world, he hoped to take part in this project, and to rear his son as “the Arab of the future.”

In Libya, the family was given a house but no keys, because the Great Leader had abolished private property; they returned home one day to find it occupied by another family. Food was scarce; sometimes they subsisted on bananas. Clémentine was fired from her job reading the news in French on Libyan radio: she could not contain her laughter while quoting Qaddafi’s threat to invade the United States and assassinate President Reagan. (She’s the Marge Simpson of “The Arab of the Future,” rolling her eyes as her husband quotes the maxims of Qaddafi’s manifesto, “The Green Book.”)

A couple of years later, after the birth of Sattouf’s brother, Abdel-Razak got a job teaching in Damascus, and moved the family to Ter Maaleh, the village where he’d grown up. Austere and piously Sunni, Ter Maaleh proved even more trying than Libya. The streets smelled of human excrement. Sexual segregation was rigorously observed. At family gatherings, the women cooked for the men, and waited to eat whatever morsels were left. Everywhere you looked, the eyes of the President stared down at you from billboards and posters.

During these years, Sattouf would return to France each summer, spending it with his mother’s family in Brittany.

In “The Arab of the Future,” Sattouf represents the three countries in which he grew up with washes of color: gray-blue for France, yellow for Libya, a pinkish red for Syria. These washes—“colors of emotion,” Sattouf calls them—create a powerfully claustrophobic effect, as if each country were its own sealed-off environment.

A rough draftsman, Sattouf relies on simplification, exaggeration, and other scrappy effects, in the way that a newspaper cartoonist might.

He draws his figures in black-and-white, and distills their features in a few expressive gestures: enormous noses, dots for eyes, single lines for eyebrows. It is not a sumptuous visual style, but it is an effective one, particularly in its evocation of the way in which a child sees the world. Sattouf has cited Hergé as one of his primary influences, but his sensibility is closer to “South Park” than to “Tintin.”

“The Arab of the Future” immerses the reader in the sensory impressions of childhood, particularly its smells.

Little Riad uses his nose to navigate his worlds, Arab and French, and to find his place in them. He identifies his relatives by their smell: the sweat of his Syrian grandmother, which he prefers to the perfume of his French grandmother; the “sour smell” of his maternal grandfather.

“When I started to remember this period, I realized that many of my memories were of sounds and smells,” Sattouf told me. “I remembered that every woman I knew in the village had a very different odor. And the people whose odor I preferred were generally the ones who were the kindest to me. I find that’s still true today.”

The Syrian boys Sattouf met were like “little men,” intimidatingly fluent in the rhetoric of warfare. The first Arabic word he learned from them was yehudi, “Jew.” It was hurled at him at a family gathering by two of his cousins, who proceeded to pounce on him. Fighting the Israeli Army was the most popular schoolyard game.

The Jew was “a kind of evil creature for us,” Sattouf told me, though no one had actually seen one. (Sattouf writes, “I tried to be the most aggressive one toward the Jews, to prove that I wasn’t one of them.”) Another pastime was killing small animals: the first volume of “The Arab of the Future” concludes with the lynching of a puppy.

Ter Maaleh was Abdel-Razak’s home, but he hadn’t been back in 17 years, and he was nearly as much of a stranger there as his wife, the only woman in the village who didn’t cover herself. His older brother, who never expected him to return, had sold much of his land.

Abdel-Razak tried to ingratiate himself with more powerful men, like his cousin, a general in the Syrian Army. He had little affection for the regime, and even less for the Alawite minority that dominated it, but he was desperate to improve his fortunes. “My father was a collaborator,” Sattouf says. “I think what he liked about Assad was that he had come from a very poor background and ended up ruling over other people. Assad had a destiny, and my father thought that he might, too. He was completely fascinated by power.”

Much of the pathos of the memoir comes from Sattouf’s depiction of his father, a dreamer full of bluster, driven by impotent fury at the West; a secularist who can’t quite free himself from superstition; a man who wants to give orders but whose lot is to follow them. He is embarrassed by his son’s vulnerability, which reminds him of his own; he proclaims himself the master of the household but usually defers to his more practical wife. For all his rants against Jews, Africans, and, above all, the Shia, he remains strangely endearing, a kind of Arab Archie Bunker.

The great drama of the book lies less in Riad’s adventures than in his father’s gradual surrender to local traditions.

One of those traditions was honor killing. When Sattouf was seven, a cousin of his, a thirty-five-year-old widow who taught him to draw, was suffocated to death by her father and her brother, who had discovered that she was pregnant. In the second volume of “The Arab of the Future,” little Riad learns of her death while eavesdropping on a conversation between his parents.

Clémentine is aghast at the murder, while Abdel-Razak tries to have it both ways: Yes, he says, honor crimes are “terrible,” but in rural Syria becoming pregnant outside marriage “is the worst dishonor that a girl can bring upon her family.”

Clémentine pressures Abdel-Razak to report the crime, and the men are imprisoned. But only a few months later the couple pass one of them on the street. Clémentine is shocked, and her husband reveals that the sentence was commuted as part of a deal between the authorities and the family.

People in the village, he says, were “beginning to say the Sattoufs were weak” because they had sent to prison “a man who had done nothing but preserve the honor of his family.” We see him turning away from his wife, his hands clasped behind his back. In “The Arab of the Future,” his accommodation is nearly as heartbreaking as the killing itself.

Clémentine is shocked, and her husband reveals that the sentence was commuted as part of a deal between the authorities and the family. People in the village, he says, were “beginning to say the Sattoufs were weak” because they had sent to prison “a man who had done nothing but preserve the honor of his family.”

We see him turning away from his wife, his hands clasped behind his back. In “The Arab of the Future,” his accommodation is nearly as heartbreaking as the killing itself.

In 1990, Abdel-Razak and Clémentine separated. Clémentine took her sons to live in Brittany. Sattouf and his father exchanged letters, but he says that “the rupture was total.” Clémentine eventually found work as a medical secretary, but for several years she was unemployed, and the family lived on welfare in public housing.

Sattouf says he felt no less out of place in school in France—and scarcely less bullied—than he had in Syria. His blond hair turned black and curly, and, he recalled, “I went from being an elf to a troll. I was voted the ugliest person in class.” Accused of being a Jew in Syria, he was now gay-baited because of his high voice. “Those experiences gave me an immense affection for Jews and gays,” he said.

Then there was his name. In Arabic, the names Riad and Sattouf had what he described as “an impressive solemnity.” In French, they sounded like rire de sa touffe, which means “laugh at her pussy.” When teachers took attendance, “people would burst out laughing. It was impossible for a girl to date a guy whose name meant ‘I laughed at your pussy.’ ” As a result, he said, “I lived a very violent solitude. This is something a lot of illustrators have in common.”

For our first meeting, Sattouf proposed that I come to a café near his apartment, not far from the Place de la République, where he lives with his partner—a comic-book editor—and their son. When he saw me waiting for him outside the café, he said, “What, you didn’t enter? Let’s enter! I can’t believe it, I am speaking English!”

Sattouf immediately shifted to French; he reserves English—to be precise, a caricature of American-accented English—for jokes and impersonations, as if it were intrinsically humorous.

After coffee, we walked over to Sattouf’s apartment so that I could see his studio. He draws at his desk on Photoshop, facing a wall of bookshelves stacked with comic books and works on Paris photography by Atget and Doisneau.

There was an old photograph of the Italian actress Valeria Golino, whom he cast in “Les Beaux Gosses,” a hit movie about a provincial high school that he made a few years ago. (“I used to masturbate a lot thinking of her when I was a teen-ager,” he volunteered.)

In the living room, there were framed drawings by his favorite cartoonists—Chris Ware, Richard Corben, and Robert Crumb, among others—and a collection of electric guitars. By the window stood a pot with three cacti: two short, one long, in the shape of a penis and testicles, a gift from his friend the actor Vincent Lacoste, the star of “Les Beaux Gosses.”

Sattouf said he had been reading Chateaubriand but that he mostly reads comic books. The only book about the Middle East that I could see was one on Islam by Bernard Lewis. It was still in shrink-wrap.

The day was hot, and the smoky fragrance of ham wafted up from a restaurant downstairs. “Ah, putain, it stinks!” Sattouf screamed, running to shut the window. He picked up a toy gun, a “Blade Runner” prop: “I’m gonna kill someone!”

Usually, Sattouf speaks in a soft, rather delicate voice; he told me that when he makes a reservation at a restaurant he lowers his voice so that he’s not mistaken for a woman. It struck me that there was perhaps a compensatory element to his penchant for adolescent sexual humor.

He is a short and compact man, with wire-rimmed glasses, a closely trimmed beard, and somewhat stubby arms that make him look like a cartoon character. Whenever he felt cornered by my questions, which was often, he would cross his arms and glare at me, in a parody of machismo.

Although Sattouf’s work is confessional, in person he is guarded; even his closest friends describe him as secretive. When I first contacted him by e-mail, he warned me that he would not reveal anything that he might discuss in the projected third and fourth volumes of “The Arab of the Future.” That turned out to include most of the events in his life from the age of seven on.

Furthermore, what Sattouf does say about himself can be highly contradictory. In interviews, he has said that he wrote “The Arab of the Future” out of a desire for “revenge” when France declined to provide him with visas for relatives who were trapped in Homs, under siege by the Syrian Army.

But, when I asked him about this episode, he would say only that one of his relatives succeeded in getting to France, while the others found refuge in an Arab country that he refused to name.

When I asked for the real names of his parents, he pretended to spot an attractive woman at another table: “Look at those titties!” He told me that his father died in Syria sometime in the first years of this century, but would not give a date. He said that his younger brother works as an engineer in Boulogne but that “you will never know anything else about him! I’m not a family guy. Are you a family guy? Tell me about you, Adam. Do you like being with your family?” He responded to follow-up questions by e-mail with a GIF of Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” smiling mischievously and saying, “It’s classified.”

A number of rumors about Sattouf have circulated in the press and on Wikipedia (which, until recently, claimed that he grew up partly in Algeria).

He turned out to be the source for at least some of them. He had told various people I interviewed that his father kidnapped his brother and took him back to Syria, where the brother later joined the uprising against Assad; that his father had a mystical epiphany while making the hajj to Mecca; and that he later committed a terrible crime against the family.

When I asked him about these stories in an e-mail, he denied them, joking that his father had “obviously been kidnapped by extraterrestrials one day before meeting my mother but I prefer that you not talk about this in your article.” He went on to say that his brother never returned to Syria; his father barely went to the mosque, much less to Mecca; and there was never a crime against the family. “The reality is much less sexy than you think,” he wrote.

“I’m a little paranoid,” Sattouf admitted at one point. A French-Lebanese friend of mine, the screenwriter Joëlle Touma, attributed this to his childhood in Syria. “If you grow up in a dictatorship like Syria, you want to control everything, because you’re afraid that if you don’t, and you say one wrong word, you could end up in jail.”

But I sensed that there were other motives at work. Though false, the kidnapping story was curiously apt. In Sattouf’s memoir, his father’s decision to move the family to Syria has the coercive force of a kidnapping. The book is, in part, a settling of accounts with the man who stole his childhood, a man he once worshipped but came to despise.

As a teen-ager in Brittany, Sattouf spent almost all of his time in his room, drawing and reading comic books.

After getting his baccalauréat, he studied applied art in Nantes, and then made his way to Paris to study animation at the Gobelins School of the Image. His early drawings were hyperrealist, feverishly detailed and painterly: he compared them, somewhat dismissively, to swaggeringly virtuosic guitar solos. He landed his first contract in 1998—“before I had even kissed a girl.”

Émile Bravo, a comic-book artist who is a close friend of Sattouf’s, met him at a conference in 2002. He remembers Sattouf, he told me, as “very timid and introverted, but with a great sense of humor.” He went on, “Riad had a great analysis of people, a feeling for psychology. He seemed to have an enormous tableau of the characters in the human comedy.”

The son of refugees from Franco’s Spain, Bravo was a kindred spirit; like Sattouf, he had spent his childhood shuttling between France and a rural village under dictatorship, and he knew what it was like to feel permanently out of place. According to Sattouf, it was Bravo who gave him the confidence to begin writing his own stories.

Through Bravo, Sattouf befriended other cartoonists, and joined a studio of young artists who aimed to write comic books for a more sophisticated literary readership. He stayed there until last year, when he set up a studio at home. His first works were variations on the theme of male sexual frustration, often his own. In “No Sex in New York,” inspired by a trip he made there not long after 9/11, he depicts himself as a schlemiel with an inconvenient Muslim name, a natural-born loser in a ruthlessly competitive sexual marketplace.

Mathieu Sapin, one of Sattouf’s studio mates, told me, “In a very short time, Riad imposed himself as a figure with a set of themes all his own—youth, education, sexual frustration, the things we see in Daniel Clowes, but in a French style.”

When readers told Sattouf to “stop with your stories of losers,” he invented a buff, bisexual superhero named Pascal Brutal. “I’m fascinated by the desire that women have for stronger men—that’s where my sexual frustration came from,” Sattouf told me. Switching to English, he added, “I’m weak, you know, I’m not virile! I hate muscular people. I should go to the gym, but I’m too lazy!”

Almost all of Sattouf’s work is drawn from firsthand observation. “Riad is a sponge,” the comic-book artist Jul Berjeaut told me. “He can leave aside his own sensibility and absorb the sensibility of those around him.”

For his first popular hit, “Retour au Collège” (“Back to School”), published in 2005, Sattouf spent two weeks embedded in an upper-class high school in Paris. The principal boasted that in his school you didn’t hear students saying “Go fuck your mother,” but Sattouf heard much worse, and spared none of the details. A portrait of the children of France’s ruling class, “Retour au Collège” is at once affectionate and sneering, gross and touching: a Sattouf signature.

Sattouf brought the same sensibility to his strip for Charlie Hebdo, “The Secret Life of Youth,” which appeared weekly from 2004 until late 2014. It was based on conversations he overheard in the Métro, in fast-food restaurants, and on the street. “I never took notes, and I always changed the looks of the people I drew,” he told me.

He showed me his method one day while we were riding the Métro. A little girl began talking to her mother, and a look of intense concentration came over Sattouf’s face. The girl’s mother asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She replied, “I want to be a giraffe so that I can observe everyone below.” That would have been an unusually gentle “Secret Life,” however.

Many of his Charlie strips involved scenes of humiliation, often of a sexual nature, and of religious hypocrisy. In one strip, a woman complains that she can no longer wear her miniskirt to work because she’s being hit on by Islamists praying outside her office.

Urban life, for Sattouf, is a deeply unsentimental education, an al-fresco hazing. “I think Riad believes the world around him is really scary on a daily basis,” Berjeaut said.

“The Secret Life” established Sattouf as a distinctively sour comedian of manners—and, more controversially, as the only Arab cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, whose mockery of religion took aim at symbols of Islamic piety, notably the image of the Prophet.

In 2006, Charlie Hebdo reprinted the cartoons of the Prophet that had run in a right-wing Danish newspaper. In November, 2011, it published a special issue, Charia Hebdo, guest-edited by the Prophet; the offices were fire-bombed just as it hit the newsstands. After the January, 2015, massacre, Sapin told me, “I was very afraid for Riad.”

Yet Sattouf’s relationship with Charlie was never close: it was a professional alliance, not a political one.

Although he was fond of Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), Jean Cabut (Cabu), Rénald Luzier (Luz), and Georges Wolinski—legendary figures in the world of French cartooning, all of whom were murdered on January 7th—he did not attend editorial meetings, because he didn’t feel that he could contribute to the often rancorous arguments about French politics. Nor was he attracted to Charlie’s style of deliberately confrontational satire.

Although he is a wry observer of human folly, he said that he could not bring himself to “draw something openly mocking.” He told me that he wasn’t sure whether it was responsible to reprint the Danish cartoons but that he “found them very badly done as drawings.” Drawing the Prophet, he said, “is a personal taboo. My cousins and I used to talk about what he might look like, but I wouldn’t do it. I’ve never drawn Jesus, Buddha, or Moses, either.”

In the first issue of Charlie published after the massacre, Sattouf revived his “Secret Life” strip. He drew a scene he had observed near his apartment: a piece of understated yet pointed reportage. A young, working-class man of North African background, with a shaved head and wearing a parka and sneakers, speaks in thick banlieue slang on his cell phone, often with his back to us.

We can’t hear what the other person is saying, but he seems to be either belittling the atrocities or hinting that they were part of a larger conspiracy. The man we actually hear, growing increasingly testy, replies, “I don’t give a fuck about Charlie Hebdau,” but “you don’t kill someone for that, that’s all.”

This was a widespread conviction among French citizens of Muslim origin, but it found little echo in the French press during the weeks after the massacre, when the slogan “Je Suis Charlie,” which began as an expression of solidarity, became something of a test of loyalty—a “ritual formula,” as the sociologist Emmanuel Todd has argued.

According to Todd, those who refused to abide by this formula—particularly if they were Muslim—were susceptible to accusations that they excused or even condoned the killings. Muslims, Todd has written, found themselves pressured to defend not merely “the right, but the obligation, to commit blasphemy,” as proof of their commitment to French secularism. Sattouf’s cartoon was a quiet reminder that there were French citizens—many of them Muslim—who were outraged by the massacre, without being sympathetic to Charlie.

One day, as we were walking across a bridge over the Seine, I asked Sattouf how he felt after the attacks. “I was totally disoriented,” he said. “If you were a cartoonist associated with Charlie, you were suddenly expected to be an expert on geopolitics. At the same time, you felt a little guilty, as if you’d started a war. And what was even weirder was that Charlie was being described by people like Emmanuel Todd as this right-wing magazine.

My memory of Charlie was of Charb going to demonstrations in factories where people were on strike, and shouting, ‘Down with the bosses!,’ singing the ‘Internationale,’ and making free drawings for the workers. It was utterly confusing.”

Sattouf marched in the January 11th demonstration, when four million French people gathered across the country with “Je Suis Charlie” banners, but the spectacle of patriotic unity—something with which he was all too familiar, from his childhood in Syria—left him feeling uncomfortable. “Netanyahu, Abbas, all the heads of state, French people singing the ‘Marseillaise’: I think Cabu and the others would have been traumatized if they’d seen the demonstration—horrified, really. It had nothing to do with the journal or the people I knew there, who detested nationalism.”

Sattouf had long considered writing a book about the Arab world, but the idea for the memoir occurred to him only after the Syrian uprising broke out, in 2011. “I was certain everything was going to collapse,” he told me. “I knew Syria would never be like the other Arab countries. I’d seen teachers beating their children in school. I knew how things worked there. It was instinctive.” He wrote the book in “a kind of trance,” he told me, drawing almost exclusively on memory. He read no histories of Syria, barely looked at family photographs, and imposed a rule on himself: never to stray from his childhood perspective, and to write only about what he knew at the time.

When the Sattouf family visits the ruins of Palmyra, there is no mention of its notorious prison, which was destroyed by the Islamic State last May, because Sattouf’s father never mentioned it, and Sattouf wanted to “convey the ignorance of childhood.” The events that reshaped Syria—the death of Hafez al-Assad, the rise of his son Bashar, the uprising and the civil war—are never even hinted at in the first two volumes, which cover the years 1978-85. The effect of this omission is one of time travel, back to the vanished future of pan-Arabism.

When I spoke to Guillaume Allary, Sattouf’s editor, he described the book as a work of almost pure testimony. “The Arab of the Future,” he said, gives the reader “the raw facts,” untainted by any “political discourse.” But Sattouf’s choice of facts is selective, and it would be hard to read “The Arab of the Future” as anything other than a bitter indictment of the pan-Arabist project that his father espoused. Little Riad, its apparently guileless narrator, is a Candide figure, who can’t help noticing the rot around him, even as the adults invoke the glories of Arab socialism.

“The Arab of the Future” provides an unflinching portrait of the frustrations and the brutality that sparked the revolts against the regimes in both Libya and Syria—and of the internal conflicts that have darkened their revolutionary horizons.

That portrait has made “The Arab of the Future” a very popular book among Arab exiles and expatriates in France. I spoke to a number of Syrian intellectuals in Paris; all of them vouched for the accuracy of Sattouf’s depiction of Baathist Syria, whatever their views about the current war. Subhi Hadidi, a leftist member of the opposition who fled Syria in the late eighties, told me, “Sattouf is faithful to what he sees, and he doesn’t beautify reality.”

(He had visited Sattouf’s village and found it “full of militants—Communists, Trotskyists, and Muslim Brothers.”) When I asked the Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis, who has been more critical of the rebels than of the regime, what he thought of Sattouf, he said, “Sattouf describes things as they are.” I had dinner with a group of Algerian intellectuals who grew up in socialist Algeria, under the rule of Colonel Houari Boumédiène, and who told me that Sattouf might as well have been writing about their childhood.

Among French intellectuals, however, particularly those who study the Arab world, Sattouf is a more controversial figure. Many note that his bleak and unflattering depiction of a traditional Muslim society comes at a time when the defense of laïcité, the French model of secularism, has increasingly assumed anti-Muslim undertones, and when the far-right National Front was able to beat all other parties in the 2014 European Parliament elections, with nearly twenty-five per cent of the vote.

In a lacerating critique for the Web site Orient XXI, published two weeks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Laurent Bonnefoy, a young Middle East scholar, argued that Sattouf’s book had seduced French readers by pandering to Orientalist prejudices: “The Arab is dirty . . . violent, backwards, always stupid, vulgar, bigoted, and, of course, anti-Semitic.”

The Bonnefoy thesis was widely discussed in Paris, and I heard echoes of it in a number of conversations. Yves Gonzalez-Quijano, a French scholar of the Arab world, told me that the book’s appeal in France “rests on an unconscious, or partly conscious, racism,” paraphrasing Emmanuel Todd’s thesis about Charlie. “There’s nothing positive in the book—no nostalgia or love,” he said.

“Even my Arab friends who eat the Arabs for breakfast have a certain nostalgia for the sun, the nights on the terrace, the countryside.” He characterized Sattouf as an “arabe de services”—a token Arab. He went on, “Because he’s part Arab, everything he says becomes acceptable, including the most atrociously racist things. What he’s written is very personal, a kind of self-analysis, really. But this analysis has entered a very public arena, in a totally explosive context that’s much larger than he is.”

But plenty of French Arabists take Sattouf’s side. Jean-Pierre Filiu, who has written extensively on Syria, believes that Sattouf’s success is a tribute to a French “empathy for the plight of real-life Arabs, rather than the ‘Arabs of the future’ envisioned by Qaddafi and Assad.” Olivier Roy, a French authority on Islam, told me that Sattouf can’t help being “enlisted” in local battles, simply because he’s one of the few artists of Muslim origin who have achieved fame in France.

“Sattouf is experiencing something that Marjane Satrapi experienced after ‘Persepolis’ came out,” he said. “She told a story of dictatorship and revolution, and suddenly she was expected to be an activist.”

I mentioned the controversy to Elias Sanbar, a Palestinian writer and diplomat, who is now Palestine’s ambassador to UNESCO. He has been living in Paris on and off since the sixties, and is a sharp observer of France’s relationship to the Arab world. “I’m not surprised they’re calling it an Orientalist book, but it’s a false debate,” he said. “The problem isn’t Sattouf, who has written a funny and sympathetic book. It’s the readers who think they’ve understood a society as complex as Syria because they’ve read a single comic book.”

Until the current war, he said, “Syria was a black hole, an Atlantis, in France. It took hundreds of thousands of deaths, a human disaster, for the French to open their eyes. And in this context arrived a book—humorous, humane—that all of a sudden gave the French the illusion of knowing a country.”

Sattouf himself seemed to want people to read as little into his work as possible and insisted that his project was to write about his childhood in a remote village, not about Syria, much less about the Arab world. “If I had written a book about a village in southern Italy or Norway, would I be asked about my vision of the European world?” he said. “This idea of the Arab world is a mirage, really.” Perhaps it is.

Yet that mirage, which Sattouf’s father mistook for the future, is the subject of the memoir. And Sattouf didn’t call the book “The Boy from Ter Maaleh”; he called it “The Arab of the Future.”

On the first day that we met, Sattouf took me to lunch at Les Comptoirs de Carthage, a canteen in the Marais owned by Kate Daoud, an Englishwoman in her sixties who married a Tunisian and lived in Tunisia for many years before settling in Paris. Kate’s Cuisine, as regulars like Sattouf call it, is a quiet, rustic place with wood tables and turquoise placemats, decorated with North African bric-a-brac and photographs.

I ordered a vegetable couscous; he ordered a salad. When we paid the bill, I complimented Daoud on her harissa, and Sattouf asked her when she left Tunisia. She said that she sold her house there only after the uprising against the Ben-Ali dictatorship, when the security situation deteriorated. “Are you Tunisian?” she asked him.

The question seemed to startle Sattouf. He told me that because he did not have stereotypically Arab features he was rarely seen as such. His appearance had insulated him from overt racism in France, his sole experience of which was when, after winning an important comics prize in 2010, he received letters calling him a “dirty Arab.”

He said that the very word “Arab” had become highly charged in France; now that the pan-Arabist project is no more, it is purely a racial epithet: “ ‘Arab’ is a word you only hear from racists, as in ‘Ah, those Arabs!’ ” In that sense, the title “The Arab of the Future” has what the sociologist Eric Fassin characterized as “a nostalgic air”: “People in France don’t talk about Arabs; they talk about Muslims.”

Sattouf. He told me that because he did not have stereotypically Arab features he was rarely seen as such. His appearance had insulated him from overt racism in France, his sole experience of which was when, after winning an important comics prize in 2010, he received letters calling him a “dirty Arab.”

He said that the very word “Arab” had become highly charged in France; now that the pan-Arabist project is no more, it is purely a racial epithet: “ ‘Arab’ is a word you only hear from racists, as in ‘Ah, those Arabs!’ ” In that sense, the title “The Arab of the Future” has what the sociologist Eric Fassin characterized as “a nostalgic air”: “People in France don’t talk about Arabs; they talk about Muslims.”

In one of our early conversations, Sattouf described his father as having had a “complicated attraction-repulsion relationship to the West.” It often seemed that Sattouf’s relationship to his roots was just as conflicted. The more he tried to minimize his interest in the Arab world, the more he talked about it, usually in the form of comic riffs. When I rescheduled a meeting with a wealthy Algerian businessman, Sattouf said, “Don’t go back to Algeria for the next forty years! If you do, someone at the airport is going to say to you, ‘Please come this way, sir.’ Ten years later, you will have a great article for The New Yorker about life in an Algerian prison. And then you will have great success. Al-hamdu lillah! That will teach you never to insult an Algerian businessman!”

Sattouf shares another trait with his father: a sense of destiny. In “The Arab of the Future,” the visual marker of that destiny is his blond hair, the color of his mother’s. The son of Abdel-Razak Sattouf was raised to become the Arab of the future; instead, he became a Frenchman with a “weird name.” That made him a misfit in France, but it also gave him the subject of a lifetime.

In the next volume of “The Arab of the Future,” Sattouf told me, he’ll be writing about an experience no less harrowing than his childhood in Ter Maaleh: his adolescence in France. “People will be surprised,” he said. “I saw some pretty tough things here.” 

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly included Renald Luzier in a list of people killed in the attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

The Lion and the hyenas in Lebanon and Syria (1971-2005)

Hafez Assad of Syria died in 2000 of cancer. This dude is a master in holding on to power for 3 decades and enjoying the respect of his foreign enemies and the crippling fear of his citizens to any opinion shared even within the confine of the family.

He was born in a poor family and jumped at the occasion to topple half a dozen military coups in 2 decades, all of them masterminded by the USA and financed by Saudi Arabia. It is recounted that the people in Damascus knew that a coup is being prepared each time the Saudi ambassador leaves.

Hafez denied the airforce support when the regime advanced its tanks to come to the rescue of the Palestinians in Jordan who were being massacred by King Hussein in 1969. Israel just flew over the advancing Syrian tanks and made them backtrack in their advance toward Jordan.

Strong with the backing of Hussein and Saudi Arabia, Hafez did a successful military coup in 1971, put in prison all the political leaders and officers who could challenge his power, including strongmen from his Alawi sect. They rotted in prisons till they died.

In the meantime, he blockaded all the entrances of Damascus by the military so that he could have advance notice of any military attempt to a coup.

When he came to power, Suleiman Frangieh was president in Lebanon. This dude of Frangieh had massacred 40 people in a church in his hometown of Ehden in the mid 1950’s a fled to Syria. Hafez welcomed Frangieh in his home until things cooled down in Lebanon.

Consequently, Hafez was convinced that he could control Lebanon under the presidency of Frangieh who was elected by a single vote majority in 1969.

Actually, Hafez was more intent on controlling most of the potent Palestinian resistance factions in Lebanon and elsewhere in order to strengthen his political and strategic standing.

Yasser Arafat, head of the PLO, gave Hafez a lot of headaches because he wanted to be self-autonomous in dealing with Arabs head of States and the hefty funding he received from the oil-rich countries.

In Sept. of 1973, Hafez coordinated with Sadat of Egypt the counter-offensive on Israel that occupied Sinai and the Golan Heights. The Bar Lev line fell within hours in Sinai on the canal of Suez and the Syrian troops re-occupied all of the Golan in a single day.

Israel warned the US that it will use its nuclear arsenal if no immediate US air supplies are Not forthcoming.  Sadat refrained from advancing in the Sinai according to the deal, on the excuse that the Sam missiles didn’t cover the air space in the Sinai. Israel focused all its power on the Syrian front and recapture the lost occupied land.

Sadat made a peace deal with Israel in 1978 in return of the Sinai, and spoke at the Knesset. Hafez fomented a coalition against Sadat and kicked Egypt from the Arab League.

By 1981, Hafez Assad of Syria was plotting to kill several birds in one shot. The family Al Assad (The Lion) was originally Al Wa7sh (The Beast) before it was changed.

The Palestinian Arafat of the PLO and Sadat of Egypt had started to foment violent opposition by the Syrian Sunni Moslem Brotherhoods against the Alawit Assad regime.

Arafat was the staunchest enemy of Hafez in his attempt to control Lebanon, and Sadat because Hafez directly and publicly opposed Egypt peace deal with Israel.

Hafez negotiated with the Israeli to enter Lebanon and push forward to put siege and then enter Beirut until the PLO is kicked out of Lebanon.

While Israel was engaged in its nth pre-emptive war in Lebanon, Hafez put siege on Hama for 6 months and then entered this stronghold city of the Brotherhood and slaughtered 15,000. The punishment and harassment continued for another 3 decades on the Brotherhoods who opted to immigrate overseas.

After capturing Beirut, Israel reneged on the deal with Hafez and decided to pressure the deputies to elect Bashir Gemayyel (Lebanese Forces leader) as President of Lebanon. Israel went even further by pressuring Bashir to proclaim his intention for a peace treaty with Israel before the swearing ceremony.

Hafez reacted by assassinating Bashir on the eve of the ceremony and followed it by successive martyred car bombing on Israel checkpoints throughout Lebanon.

Israel finally retreated to a swath of land in south Lebanon as was the initial deal.

Sadat was also assassinated during the national military parade by Egypt Moslem Brotherhood.

Since 1983 to 2005, Syria was the main power broker in Lebanon and controlled the internal security.

The Lebanese militia warlord hyenas were on the surface at the beck of Syria dictate.

Actually, they were running the show: Nabih Berry (of the Amal militia), Walid Jumblat (the Druze warlord leader) and the late comer Rafic Hariri (Saudi designate Sunni leader).

When Hafez gets angry and reclaim the spoil, they retract momentarily and satisfy themselves with the carcases.

They were the hyenas who most of the time did the kill and resume the eating when the Lion is kept busy on other Arabic problems.

Even after the Syrian troops retreated from Lebanon in April 2005, the triumvirate (Berry, Jumblat and the Hariri clan) continued to rule and control Lebanon.

They transformed Lebanon political system into an Anomie structure where the politicians are the main business men in Lebanon and holding monopoly over every sector of the economy.

They controlled the Judicial system, the internal security, the syndicates, and almost every institution.

The Constitution was a piece of paper and the Parliament extended its tenure by voting for repeated extensions and increased allowances and privileges.

100 years ago, Americans talked about Catholics the way they talk about Muslims today

About a century ago, millions of Americans feared that members of a religious group were amassing an arsenal of weapons for a secret, preplanned takeover of the United States.

The feared religious group was not Muslims. It was, as the Los Angeles Times’s Matt Pearce wrote in a great new piece on Wednesday, Catholics:

Hatred had become big business in southwestern Missouri, and its name was the Menace, a weekly anti-Catholic newspaper whose headlines screamed to readers around the nation about predatory priests, women enslaved in convents and a dangerous Roman Catholic plot to take over America.…

America’s deep and widespread skepticism of Catholics is a faint memory in today’s post-Sept. 11 world. But as some conservative politicians call for limits on Muslim immigration and raise questions about whether Muslims are more loyal to Islamic law than American law, the story of Aurora’s long-ago newspaper is a reminder of a long history of American religious intolerance.

Today, there are calls for federal surveillance of mosques in the name of preventing terrorist attacks.

A century ago, it was state laws that allowed the warrantless search of convents and churches in search of supposedly trapped women and purported secret Catholic weapons caches.

Andrew Bossone shared a link.
Anti-Catholic fervor even led to violence.|By German Lopez

This may seem absurd today, but there was a real fear among Protestant Americans back then that Catholics were planning to take over the country.

As Pearce reported, the fears led to serious violence: Lynch mobs killed Catholic Italians, arsonists burned down Catholic churches, and there were anti-Catholic riots.

It was a similar sentiment to the kind of Islamophobia today that’s led many Americans to call for shutting down mosques, forcing Muslims to register in a national database, and even banning Islam.

The point of the comparison is not to say that the US faces the same problems today as it did a century ago, or that the discrimination toward Catholics back then and Muslims today is exactly the same.

But when looking back at the history of the US, it’s easy to see a pattern of consistent xenophobia and fears of outsiders.

Xenophobia makes a regular appearance in US history

In response to terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, much of the conversation has focused on refugees and immigration.

This conversation has been tinged with xenophobia toward Muslims — with many Republican presidential candidates going as far as saying the US should ban Muslim refugees, people from Muslim-dominated countries, or Muslims altogether. (The same mantra expressed in Poland, in Hungary, in Croatia…)

But this sort of rhetoric is not new to the US.

As the Pew Research Center found, Americans have generally opposed taking in refugees even as they went through abhorrent, well-known crises. (Vox’s Dara Lind noted that America even rejected some Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.)

A century ago, a popular Missouri newspaper demonized a religious minority: Catholics
The year was 1915, and the strange new newspaper in Aurora, Mo., had grown so quickly in its first four years that rail officials had to build extra tracks for all the paper and printing materials suddenly rolling into town.
Los Angeles Times ·

Naomi Klein looking at the ‘greenwashing’ of big business and its effects – on the planet, and our own bodies

I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure.

But I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most news stories. I told myself the science was too complicated and the only environmentalists were dealing with it.

And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong with the shiny card in my wallet attesting to my “elite” frequent-flyer status.

A great many of us engage in this kind of denial. We look for a split second and then we look away.

Or maybe we do really look, but then we forget.

We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons.

We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything.

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein: ‘My doctor told me that my hormone levels were too low and that I’d probably miscarry, for the third time.

My mind raced back to the Gulf.’ Photograph: Anya Chibis for the Guardian Anya Chibis/Guardian


And we are right. If we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, major cities will drown, ancient cultures will be swallowed by the seas; our children will spend much of their lives fleeing and recovering from vicious storms and extreme droughts. Yet we continue all the same.

What is wrong with us?

I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things needed to cut emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have struggled to find a way out of this crisis.

We are stuck, because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and benefit the vast majority – are threatening to an elite minority with a stranglehold over our economy, political process and media.

That problem might not have been insurmountable had it presented itself at another point in our history.

But it is our collective misfortune that governments and scientists began talking seriously about radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in 1988 – the exact year that marked the dawning of “globalisation“.

The numbers are striking: in the 1990s, as the market integration project ramped up, global emissions were going up an average of 1% a year;

By the 2000s, with “emerging markets” such as China fully integrated into the world economy, emissions growth had sped up disastrously, reaching 3.4% a year.

That rapid growth rate has continued, interrupted only briefly, in 2009, by the world financial crisis.

What the climate needs now is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands is unfettered expansion.

Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.

What gets me most are not the scary studies about melting glaciers, the ones I used to avoid.

It’s the books I read to my two-year-old. Looking For A Moose is one of his favourites.

It’s about a bunch of kids who really want to see a moose. They search high and low – through a forest, a swamp, in brambly bushes and up a mountain. (The joke is that there are moose hiding on each page.) In the end, the animals all come out and the ecstatic kids proclaim: “We’ve never ever seen so many moose!” On about the 75th reading, it suddenly hit me: he might never see a moose.

I went to my computer and began to write about my time in northern Alberta, Canadian tar sands country, where members of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation told me how the moose had changed.

A woman killed one on a hunting trip, only to find the flesh had turned green.

I heard a lot about strange tumours, which locals assumed had to do with the animals drinking water contaminated by tar sand toxins. But mostly I heard about how the moose were simply gone.

And not just in Alberta. Rapid Climate Changes Turn North Woods into Moose Graveyard read a May 2012 headline in Scientific American.

A year and a half later, the New York Times reported that one of Minnesota’s two moose populations had declined from 4,000 in the 1990s to just 100.

Will my son ever see a moose?

In our desire to deal with climate change without questioning the logic of growth, we’ve been eager to look both to technology and the market for saviours. And the world’s celebrity billionaires have been happy to play their part.

In his autobiography/new age business manifesto Screw It, Let’s Do It, Richard Branson shared the inside story of his road to Damascus conversion to the fight against climate change. It was 2006 and Al Gore, on tour with An Inconvenient Truth, came to the billionaire’s home to impress upon him the dangers of global warming.”It was quite an experience,” Branson writes. “As I listened to Gore, I saw that we were looking at Armageddon.”

As he tells it, his first move was to summon Will Whitehorn, then Virgin Group’s corporate and brand development director.

“We took the decision to change the way Virgin operates on a corporate and global level. We called this new approach Gaia Capitalism in honour of James Lovelock and his revolutionary scientific view” (this is that the Earth is “one single enormous living organism”).

Not only would Gaia Capitalism “help Virgin to make a real difference in the next decade and not be ashamed to make money at the same time”, but Branson believed it could become “a new way of doing business on a global level”.

Before the year was out, he was ready to make his grand entrance on to the green scene (and he knows how to make an entrance – by parachute, by jetski, by kitesail with a naked model clinging to his back).

At the 2006 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York, the highest power event on the philanthropic calendar, Branson pledged to spend $3bn over the next decade to develop biofuels as an alternative to oil and gas, and on other technologies to battle climate change. The sum alone was staggering, but the most elegant part was where the money would be coming from: Branson would divert the funds generated by Virgin’s fossil fuel-burning transportation lines.

In short, he was volunteering to do precisely what our governments have been unwilling to legislate: channel the profits earned from warming the planet into the costly transition away from these dangerous energy sources.

Bill Clinton was dazzled, calling the pledge “ground-breaking”. But Branson wasn’t finished: a year later, he was back with the Virgin Earth Challenge – a $25m prize for the first inventor to figure out how to sequester 1bn tonnes of carbon a year from the air “without countervailing harmful effects“.

And the best part, he said, is that if these competing geniuses crack the carbon code, the “‘doom and gloom’ scenario vanishes.

We can carry on living our lives in a pretty normal way – we can drive our cars, fly our planes.”

The idea that we can solve the climate crisis without having to change our lifestyles – certainly not by taking fewer Virgin flights – seemed the underlying assumption of all Branson’s initiatives.

In 2009, he launched the Carbon War Room, an industry group looking for ways that different sectors could lower their emissions voluntarily, and save money in the process. For many mainstream greens, Branson seemed a dream come true: a media darling out to show the world that fossil fuel-intensive companies can lead the way to a green future, using profit as the most potent tool.

Bill Gates and former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg have also used their philanthropy aggressively to shape climate solutions, the latter with large donations to green groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund, and with the supposedly enlightened climate policies he introduced as mayor.

But while talking a good game about carbon bubbles and stranded assets, Bloomberg has made no discernible attempt to manage his own vast wealth in a manner that reflects these concerns.

In fact, he helped set up Willett Advisors, a firm specialising in oil and gas assets, for both his personal and philanthropic holdings. Those gas assets may well have risen in value as a result of his environmental giving – what with, for example, EDF championing natural gas as a replacement for coal.

Perhaps there is no connection between his philanthropic priorities and his decision to entrust his fortune to the oil and gas sector. But these investment choices raise uncomfortable questions about his status as a climate hero, as well as his 2014 appointment as a UN special envoy for cities and climate change (questions Bloomberg has not answered, despite my repeated requests).

Gates has a similar firewall between mouth and money.

Though he professes great concern about climate change, the Gates Foundation had at least $1.2bn invested in oil giants BP and ExxonMobil as of December 2013, and those are only the start of his fossil fuel holdings. When he had his climate change epiphany, he, too, raced to the prospect of a silver-bullet techno-fix, without pausing to consider viable – if economically challenging – responses in the here and now.

In Ted talks, op-eds, interviews and in his annual letters, Gates repeats his call for governments massively to increase spending on research and development, with the goal of uncovering “energy miracles”.

By miracles, he means nuclear reactors that have yet to be invented (he is a major investor and chairman of nuclear startup TerraPower), machines to suck carbon out of the atmosphere (he is a primary investor in at least one such prototype) and direct climate manipulation (Gates has spent millions funding research into schemes to block the sun, and his name is on several hurricane-suppression patents).

At the same time, Gates has been dismissive of the potential of existing renewable technologies, writing off energy solutions such as rooftop solar as “cute” and “noneconomic” (these cute technologies already provide 25% of Germany’s electricity).

Almost a decade after Branson’s epiphany, it seems a good time to check in on the “win-win” crusade.

Let’s start with his “firm commitment” to spending $3bn over a decade developing a miracle fuel. The first tranche of money he diverted from his transport divisions launched Virgin Fuels (since replaced by private equity firm Virgin Green Fund). He began by investing in various agrofuel businesses, including making a bet of $130m on corn ethanol.

Virgin has attached its name to several biofuel pilot projects – one to derive jet fuel from eucalyptus trees, another from fermented gas waste – though it has not gone in as an investor. But Branson admits the miracle fuel “hasn’t been invented yet” and the fund has since moved its focus to a grab-bag of green-tinged products.

Diversifying his holdings to get a piece of the green market would hardly seem to merit the fanfare inspired by Branson’s original announcement, especially as the investments have been so unremarkable.

If he is to fulfil his $3bn pledge by 2016, by this point at least $2bn should have been spent. He’s not even close. According to Virgin Green Fund partner Evan Lovell, Virgin has contributed only around $100m to the pot, on top of the original ethanol investment, which brings the total Branson investment to around $230m. (Lovell confirmed that “we are the primary vehicle” for Branson’s promise.)

Branson refused to answer my direct questions about how much he had spent, writing that “it’s very hard to quantify the total amount… across the Group”.

His original “pledge” he now refers to as a “gesture”.

In 2009, he told Wired magazine, “in a sense, whether it’s $2bn, $3bn or $4bn is not particularly relevant”. When the deadline rolls around, he told me, “I suspect it will be less than $1bn right now” and blamed the shortfall on everything from high oil prices to the global financial crisis: “The world was quite different back in 2006… In the last eight years, our airlines have lost hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Given these explanations for falling short, it is worth looking at some of the things for which Branson did manage to find money.

In 2007, a year after seeing the climate light, he launched domestic airline Virgin America. From 40 flights a day to five destinations in its first year, it reached 177 flights a day to 23 destinations in 2013. At the same time, passengers on Virgin’s Australian airlines increased from 15 million in 2007 to 19 million in 2012. In 2009, Branson launched a new long-haul airline, Virgin Australia; in April 2013 came Little Red, a British domestic airline.

So this is what he has done since his climate change pledge: gone on a procurement spree that has seen his airlines’ greenhouse gas emissions soar by around 40%.

And it’s not just planes: Branson has unveiled Virgin Racing to compete in Formula One, (he claimed he had entered the sport only because he saw opportunities to make it greener, but quickly lost interest) and invested heavily in Virgin Galactic, his dream of launching commercial flights into space, for $250,000 per passenger. According to Fortune, by early 2013 Branson had spent “more than $200m” on this vanity project.

It can be argued – and some do – that Branson’s planet-saviour persona is an elaborate attempt to avoid the kind of tough regulatory action that was on the horizon when he had his green conversion.

In 2006, public concern about climate change was rising dramatically, particularly in the UK, where young activists used daring direct action to oppose new airports, as well as the proposed new runway at Heathrow.

At the same time, the UK government was considering a broad bill that would hit the airline sector; Gordon Brown, then chancellor, had tried to discourage flying with a marginal rise in air passenger duty. These measures posed a significant threat to Branson’s profit margins.

So, was Branson’s reinvention as a guilt-ridden planet-wrecker volunteering to solve the climate crisis little more than a cynical ploy?

All of a sudden, you could feel good about flying again – after all, the profits from that ticket to Barbados were going to help discover a miracle green fuel.

It was an even more effective conscience-cleaner than carbon offsets (though Virgin sold those, too).

As for regulations and taxes, who would want to hinder an airline supporting such a good cause? This was always Branson’s argument:

“If you hold industry back, we will not, as a nation, have the resources to come up with the clean-energy solutions we need.”

It is noteworthy that his green talk has been less voluble since David Cameron came to power and made it clear that fossil fuel-based businesses faced no serious threat of climate regulations.

There is a more charitable interpretation of what has gone wrong.

This would grant Branson his love of nature (whether watching tropical birds on his private island or ballooning over the Himalayas) and credit him with genuinely trying to figure out ways to reconcile running carbon-intensive businesses with a desire to help slow species extinction and avert climate chaos.

It would acknowledge, too, that he has thought up some creative mechanisms to try to channel profits into projects that could help keep the planet cool.

But if we grant him these good intentions, then the fact that all these projects have failed to yield results is all the more relevant. He set out to harness the profit motive to solve the crisis, but again and again, the demands of building a successful empire trumped the climate imperative.

The idea that only capitalism can save the world from a crisis it created is no longer an abstract theory; it’s a hypothesis that has been tested in the real world (And failed miserably).

We can now take a hard look at the results: at the green products shunted to the back of the supermarket shelves at the first signs of recession; at the venture capitalists who were meant to bankroll a parade of innovation but have come up far short; at the fraud-infested, boom-and-bust carbon market that has failed to cut emissions.

And, most of all, at the billionaires who were going to invent a new form of enlightened capitalism but decided, on second thoughts, that the old one was just too profitable to surrender.

At some point about 7 years ago, I realised I had become so convinced we were headed toward a grim ecological collapse that I was losing my capacity to enjoy my time in nature. The more beautiful the experience, the more I found myself grieving its loss – like someone unable to fall fully in love because she can’t stop imagining the inevitable heartbreak. Looking out over British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, at an ocean bay teeming with life, I would suddenly picture it barren – the eagles, herons, seals and otters all gone. It got worse after I covered the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico: for two years after, I couldn’t look at any body of water without imagining it covered in oil.

This kind of ecological despair was a big part of why I resisted having kids until my late 30s. It was around the time that I began work on my book that my attitude started to shift. Some of it, no doubt, was standard-issue denial (what does one more kid matter?). But it was also that immersing myself in the international climate movement had helped me imagine various futures that were decidedly less bleak. And I was lucky: pregnant the first month we started trying.

But then, just as fast, my luck ran out. A miscarriage. An ovarian tumour. A cancer scare. Surgery. Month after month of disappointing single pink lines on pregnancy tests. Another miscarriage.

It just so happened that the five years it took to write my book were the same years my personal life was occupied with failed pharmaceutical and technological interventions and, ultimately, pregnancy and new motherhood. I tried, at first, to keep these parallel journeys segregated, but it didn’t always work. The worst part was the ceaseless invocation of our responsibilities to “our children”. I knew these expressions were heartfelt and not meant to be exclusionary, yet I couldn’t help feeling shut out.

But along the way, that feeling changed. It’s not that I got in touch with my inner Earth Mother; it’s that I started to notice that if the Earth is indeed our mother, then she is a mother facing a great many fertility challenges of her own.

I had no idea I was pregnant when I went to Louisiana to cover the BP spill.

A few days after I got home, though, I could tell something was off and did a pregnancy test. Two lines this time, but the second strangely faint. “You can’t be just a little bit pregnant,” the saying goes. And yet that is what I seemed to be.

After more tests, my doctor told me my hormone levels were much too low and I’d probably miscarry, for the third time. My mind raced back to the Gulf – the toxic fumes I had breathed in for days and the contaminated water I had waded in. I searched on the chemicals BP was using in huge quantities, and found reams of online chatter linking them to miscarriages. Whatever was happening, I had no doubt that it was my doing.

After a week of monitoring, the pregnancy was diagnosed as ectopic – the embryo had implanted itself outside the uterus, most likely in a fallopian tube. I was rushed to the emergency room. The somewhat creepy treatment is one or more injections of methotrexate, a drug used in chemotherapy to arrest cell development (and carrying many of the side-effects). Once foetal development has stopped, the pregnancy miscarries, but it can take weeks.

It was a tough, drawn-out loss for my husband and me. But it was also a relief to learn that the miscarriage had nothing to do with the Gulf. Knowing that did make me think a little differently about my time covering the spill, however. As I waited for the pregnancy to “resolve”, I thought in particular about a long day spent on the Flounder Pounder, a boat a group of us had chartered to look for evidence that the oil had entered the marshlands.

Our guide was Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network, a heroic local organisation devoted to repairing the damage done to the wetlands by the oil and gas industry. As we navigated the narrow bayous of the Mississippi Delta, Henderson leant far over the side to get a better look at the bright green grass. What concerned him most was not what we were all seeing – fish jumping in fouled water, Roseau cane coated in oil – but something much harder to detect without a microscope and sample jars.

Spring is the start of spawning season on the Gulf Coast, and Henderson knew these marshes were teeming with nearly invisible zooplankton and tiny juveniles that would develop into adult shrimp, oysters, crabs and fin fish. In these fragile weeks, the marsh grass acts as an aquatic incubator, providing nutrients and protection from predators. “Everything is born in these wetlands,” he said.

The prospects for these microscopic creatures did not look good. Each wave brought in more oil and dispersants, sending levels of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) soaring. And this was all happening at the worst possible moment in the biological calendar: not only shellfish, but also bluefin tuna, grouper, snapper, mackerel, marlin and swordfish were all spawning. Out in the open water, floating clouds of translucent proto-life were just waiting for one of the countless plumes of oil and dispersants to pass through them like an angel of death.

Unlike the oil-coated pelicans and sea turtles, these deaths would attract no media attention, just as they would go uncounted in official assessments of the spill’s damage. If a certain species of larva was in the process of being snuffed out, we would likely not find out about it for years, and then, rather than some camera-ready mass die-off, there would just be… nothing. An absence. A hole in the life cycle.

As our boat rocked in that terrible place – the sky buzzing with Black Hawk helicopters and snowy white egrets – I had the distinct feeling we were suspended not in water but in amniotic fluid, immersed in a massive multi-species miscarriage. When I learned that I, too, was in the early stages of creating an ill-fated embryo, I started to think of that time in the marsh as my miscarriage inside a miscarriage. It was then that I let go of the idea that infertility made me some sort of exile from nature, and began to feel what I can only describe as a kinship of the infertile.

A few months after I stopped going to the fertility clinic, a friend recommended a naturopathic doctor. This practitioner had her own theories about why so many women without an obvious medical reason were having trouble conceiving. Carrying a baby is one of the hardest physical tasks we can ask of ourselves, she said, and if our bodies decline the task, it is often a sign that they are facing too many other demands – high-stress work, or the physical stress of having to metabolise toxins, or just the stresses of modern life.

Most fertility clinics use drugs and technology to override this, and they work for a lot of people. But if they do not (and they often do not), women are frequently left even more stressed, their hormones more out of whack. The naturopath proposed the opposite approach: try to figure out what might be overtaxing my system, and then remove those things. After a series of tests, I was diagnosed with a whole mess of allergies I didn’t know I had, as well as adrenal insufficiency and low cortisol levels. The doctor asked me a lot of questions, including how many hours I had spent in the air over the past year. “Why?” I asked warily. “Because of the radiation. There have been some studies done with flight attendants that show it might not be good for fertility.”

I admit I was far from convinced that this approach would result in a pregnancy, or even that the science behind it was wholly sound. Then again, the worst that could happen was that I’d end up healthier. So I did it all. The yoga, the meditation, the dietary changes (the usual wars on wheat, gluten, dairy and sugar, as well as more esoteric odds and ends). I went to acupuncture and drank bitter Chinese herbs; my kitchen counter became a gallery of powders and supplements. I left Toronto and moved to rural British Columbia. This is the part of the world where my parents live, where my grandparents are buried.

Gradually, I learned to identify a half-dozen birds by sound, and sea mammals by the ripples on the water’s surface. My frequent-flyer status expired for the first time in a decade, and I was glad.

For the first few months, the hardest part of the pregnancy was believing everything was normal. No matter how many tests came back with reassuring results, I stayed braced for tragedy. What helped most was hiking, and during the final anxious weeks, I would calm my nerves by walking for as long as my sore hips would let me on a trail along a pristine creek. I kept my eyes open for silvery salmon smolts making their journey to the sea after months of incubation in shallow estuaries.

And I would picture the cohos, pinks and chums battling the rapids and falls, determined to reach the spawning grounds where they were born. This was my son’s determination, I would tell myself. He was clearly a fighter, having managed to make his way to me despite the odds; he would find a way to be born safely, too.

I don’t know why this pregnancy succeeded any more than I know why earlier pregnancies failed – and neither do my doctors. Infertility is just one of the many areas in which we humans are confronted with our oceans of ignorance. So, mostly, I feel lucky.

And I suppose a part of me is still in that oiled Louisiana marsh, floating in a sea of poisoned larvae and embryos, with my own ill-fated embryo inside me. It’s not self-pity that keeps me returning to that sad place. It’s the conviction that there is something valuable in the body-memory of slamming up against a biological limit – of running out of chances – something we all need to learn. We are built to survive, gifted with adrenaline and embedded with multiple biological redundancies that allow us the luxury of second, third and fourth chances. So are our oceans. So is the atmosphere.

But surviving is not the same as thriving, not the same as living well. For a great many species, it’s not the same as being able to nurture and produce new life. With proper care, we stretch and bend amazingly well. But we break, too – our individual bodies, as well as the communities and ecosystems that support us.

This is an edited extract from This Changes Everything: Capitalism v The Climate, by Naomi Klein, published next week by Allen Lane at £20. To order a copy for £13.50, with free UK p&p, go to or call 0330 333 6846.







December 2015

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