Wednesday, November 02, 2016

The Arab of the Future 2 by Riad Sattouf

Riad Sattouf grew up in the Middle East -- Lybia and Syria, as far as we've seen to date, though this book only brings him up to about age 7 in 1985 -- the son of an unrealistic Arab academic father and a compliant French mother. And he's telling us about it at great depth; the first volume of his graphic-novel memoir (you get one guess as to the title) covered his earliest memories up to about age six, and this one covers basically his first school year. He's also a filmmaker and writes a weekly column in his now-native France, so one can hope that he's not going full A la Recherche du Temps Perdu on us here, with successive books of memoir covering every-shorter periods of time in his ever-more scrutinized childhood.

On the other hand, maybe that would be pretty cool. So we might be in for The Arab of the Future 25, covering the hours from noon to seven PM of May 23, 1991, around 2040 or so.

But what we have here is The Arab of the Future 2, the story of little blonde-haired, semi-Westernized Riad and how he was tossed into a very provincial village school in Ter Maaleh, Syria. Sattouf now is vastly more cosmopolitan than the inhabitants of Ter Malleh, and even six-year-old Riad had a wider experience of the world than they did at the time. Little Riad didn't have the language to confront the problems with that village life, and the older Sattouf mostly tells the story of his younger days without editorial interpolations. (There's one situation, related to an honor killing, that is so egregious that even little Riad knows how horrible it is.)

So Riad ends up in that horrible school -- cruel, almost sociopathic-seeming classmates all about him and a female teacher who unpredictably switches from happy blandness to vicious glee in capital punishment up in the front. He doesn't learn anything academic for quite some time, though Sattouf does show the other things he learns about the people around him. They're not happy lessons, but the human race is full of nasty, evil, cheating, scheming people, so they are important, necessary lessons.

His family -- both the immediate, happy one, and the larger and vastly more dysfunctional and anti-role-model extended family -- takes up somewhat less space in this book, since school takes up so much of Riad's time and mind. But we still see his father's warring sides: he's somewhat Westernized, enough to have a cosmopolitan view of what's acceptable and to fight for justice in the case of that honor killing, but he's also a mama's boy who can't see most of the problematic elements of his home culture and doesn't appreciate at all the sacrifices his wife makes every day for him. And we see some of his horrible cousins, among the other horrible kids that Ter Maaleh and nearby localities can provide. (I'm not sure what Sattouf's point is here: there have certainly been nasty schools, with cruel teachers and vicious pupils, in many countries and many times -- the British public-school model is the best known -- but this one is more particular, stunted by ignorance and religious fanaticism and dull provincialism. I can't quite tell if this is all just a "yeah, school was pretty bad" shrug or a "nationalism, ignorance and knee-jerk vague Islamism ruined most of my generation, as it did the one before us" cry of disgust.)

It all adds up to an episodic book; Sattouf doesn't tell it in chapters, but it does run from moment to moment, each one showing us another side of this mostly unpleasant town of mostly ignorant and often seriously damaged people. Sattouf makes it compelling, but I do hope that if there's an Arab of the Future 3, that it takes little Riad to somewhere less medieval and soul-crushing than Ter Maaleh.

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