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A Book Review of Riad Sattouf's "The Arab of the Future"

posted on: Jul 6, 2022

A Book Review of Riad Sattouf's "The Arab of the Future"
Sattouf’s illustration of him, his father, and his mother gazing towards the Syrian sky.

By: Jordan AbuAljazer / Arab America Contributing Writer

The Arab growing up in the Western world is often tasked by their parents to be loyal to their heritage to maintain the social and political traditions of a nation they do not occupy, all the while engaging just as sincerely with the traditions of the land they live on. This negotiation can be seen in the Arab-Western’s dress, speech, diet, and any other aspect in which they express their identity. And even then, this experience differs from other first-generation children, who must maintain their own balance between the Western world and their Asian heritage, African heritage, and so on.  

The social and political traditions for Arabs “back home” have been vibrantly subversive for what has now been decades upon decades, and so the growing Arab-Western must express a heritage that is not only different from that which is around them but is also in a continuous state of change and debate. They must process and understand the moments of revolution, protests, leaders positioned then overthrown, and heartfelt social movements that have characterized the recent histories of Arab nations. 

This balancing act is no better presented than in Arab of the Future, a graphic memoir of French-Syrian cartoonist Riad Sattouf. The memoir begins in 1980 with Sattouf at two years of age and, at the time of this writing, progresses up to the year 1994. The memoir dives into Sattouf’s young perspectives on the intense changes of his perceived world and the dueling of his own identities as he and his family move between France, Syria, and Libya. By reading the novel we are able to accompany Riad as he grows up in a world that will see the rise and effects of Pan-Arabism, Arab nationalism, and a series of Arab leaders.  

The memoir begins with illustrations of Sattouf as a toddler accompanied by his Syrian father and French mother, whose interactions with each other reflect the constant communication of culture and beliefs of which Riad found himself at the center. Riad’s father, Abdul-Razak, embodies Pan-Arabic ideals as a young and passionate doctoral student, who has chased education to better the lives of Arabs. 

 It was during his doctoral study that he met Riad’s mother, Clementine, a student of the same university who later will accompany Abdul-Razak as he follows his career throughout the Middle East. The conflicts between Abdul-Razak and Clementine are frequently a result of a cultural divide, and Riad portrays these conflicts in a manner that is incredibly engaging and allows the seemingly separate backgrounds of the two to embody the larger themes of The Arab of the Future. Apart from their conflicts with each other, this family of three anchors the reader to the story as they travel country to country throughout the five-volume memoir.  

In his illustrations, Sattouf elegantly portrays the differences of each region through a method of color palettes. In the first volume, for example, France is drawn with a cool blue while Libya is colored with a vibrant yellow. This simple palette of yellows, blacks, and whites assigns feelings of unrest, heat, and change to the region that serve to better immerse the reader in the darkly humorous world Sattouf has created. 

One of many interactions between Riad and his father.

 The characters are drawn beautifully as well. As it is with most print cartoons, characters are presented with simple bodies, exaggerated features, and bold lines. With these attributes, Sattouf illustrates a great deal of expression to each character, something that contributes to the complex emotions and personal histories of each character. Most characters express their anger, sadness, insecurity, shock, and more uniquely, not only through a set of wide eyes but effortlessly subtle posturing that is personal to each and every character. 

These illustrations make Arab of the Future not only interesting as a memoir but also beautiful and entertaining as a graphic novel. There is no lack of humor in the volumes, and though at times it is dark and closely related to the young Sattouf’s musings on a deeply conflicted world around him, the memoir is delightful for all readers.  

In my own experiences as a first-generation immigrant born in the United States, Sattouf’s expression of his identity, childhood, and background feel incredibly insightful. The Arab of the Future presents to Arab-Westerns a heartfelt and humorous presentation of what has been the experience of so many Arabs born in the west. As Riad describes the ways through which he came to understand the Arab heritage of his father and family, so too can a reader such as myself better their understanding of finding comfort and expression within a culture so unique as the Arab’s. 

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