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Posts Tagged ‘Charlie Hebdo Cartoonist

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.




March 2023

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