It’s so difficult to read Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East by Riad Sattouf without the prism of the modern day tragedy unfolding in Syria. In fact, it’s nearly impossible. Maybe that’s the point.
Sattouf’s continued insightful exploration of his childhood in Syria, which is the focus of this second autobiographical graphic novel, provides context and insights into the underlying tensions that may now be ripping apart of the fabric of that country. Sattouf is telling his own story, and his family’s story, through the eyes of himself, as a child in the Middle East. Yet, his story has larger implications.
Sattouf’s first book (years 1978-1984) bounced the family back and forth between the Middle East and Europe. This second book (years 1984-1985) mostly is confined to his childhood in Syria (with one vacation jaunt to France, which provides a stark contrast to Syria), and through Sattouf’s young eyes, we start to see the tensions of politics; of moral, religious, and ethical fault lines; and of the Assad’s family’s looming presence over everyday life as the regime strengthens its grip on society.
The power of a graphic novel autobiography like this one is that it humanizes the experiences of everyday Syrians. Sattouf uses humor and insight, and compassion, even as he casts an honest eye at his own family’s struggle to fit in (he, for example, has a French mother, and he has blond hair … not stereotypical Arab) and survive within the confines of everyday life in Syria in the mid-1980s. The scenes of the school day are enlightening and horrifying, yet are tempered by the innocent eyes of his younger self.
Sattouf’s books — and I hope he keeps going with his story — have given me a deeper understanding of Arab life in the Middle East, and allowed me to see the world beyond the newspaper headlines. By providing us the perspective of child in a country, and an entire region, about to enter a period of immense change, Sattouf shared with us the gift of perspective and understanding.
What more can you ask for of any book?
Peace (in Syria and beyond),