It’s hard not to connect the graphic story of growing up in the Middle East and Europe during the late 1970s and early 1980s by writer Riad Sattouf with events unfolding in the modern day. Syria. Libya. France. In The Arab of the Future: A Childhood of the Middle East, Sattouf explores the world of shifting political sands through the eyes of his own childhood and family.
The result of using a child’s lens on the world, as told through graphic storytelling (in a style reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis although I reluctantly make the reference because such echoes to the other famous Middle Eastern graphic novelist does not diminish Sattouf’s art and writing in the least) is that the privileged Western reader (ie, me) and the young Riad experience the unknown together. I am brought into his world with the same sense of the unknown and unbalance.
This is the true power of writing and graphic novels. We are brought visually into the time period and setting, and we experience it on a very visceral sense. Sattouf’s use of smells, which any young person is sure to remember over time, is a constant element here — the smell of perfumes, and of sweat of women and men, of the scent of rubbish on the streets and of the foods and spices. The young Riad navigates us through the transitions of his family from France to Libya (as Gaddafi is in full power) to Syria (where the elder Assad is in full power) and back to France again, with all of its historical connections to the Middle East.
I am grateful for the experience of a world both apart and of the same as my own, of growing up in another country in a similar time period (I am a little older). Reading and enjoying The Arab of the Future reminds me of how narrow our own childhood visions of the world become when all we see is what is around us, not beyond us. Graphic novels like the one that Sattouf has created here have the potential to stitch our world together, making common ground through understanding.
Peace (in the world),