Riad Sattouf’s two tomes (The Arab of the Future I and II) were huge successes in France and undeniably the big hype at this year’s Graphic Novel Day at the Literature Festival.
Following many bestselling comics (like Handbook for a Virgin) and strips in French media including in Charlie Hebdo (The Secret Life of Young People), the cartoonist and filmmaker finally risked straight autobiography and revisited his childhood in Gaddafi’s Libya and (Hafez) Assad’s Syria in the 1980s.
The son of a French-Breton mother and Syrian father, Sattouf was born in Paris but lived until age 11 (except for two years in Libya) in Ter Maaleh, a small village near Homs. The Arab follows Riad, an adorable little boy with delicate French manners and flowing blond locks, to the brutal, archaic world of his dad’s native Syria – a remote village rife with violence against dogs, women and children, and where anti-Semitism is just another facet of the surrounding superstitious ignorance. Told without any political subtext but with humorous simplicity, The Arab displays Sattouf’s trademark genius in expressing volumes through the sharp observation of the most mundane reality.
Appearing in English next month (it’s already been translated into 15 languages, including German), this must-read transcends political passions and refreshingly brings a Syrian chronicle down to eye-level – that of a small boy with a healthy cat’s curiosity and an elephant’s memory.
After Jeremie (No Sex in New York ), Pascal (Pascal Brutal) and even Esther (Esther’s Notebooks), Riad is finally the hero of your books. Why now?
It was something I had in mind for many years now. But the trigger was when I found myself helping part of my Syrian family come to France. It was a difficult process – and my idea was to describe what we had to go through with immigration authorities, etc. But then I thought it would make sense to tell the whole story – from the beginning.
What had held you back from this story for so long?
To be honest, I’m not a big fan of autobiographies because more often than not I feel authors are being a bit too nice – a bit complacent with themselves and their loved ones. I kind of evaded the topic for years. But then I decided to centre the narrative on the relationship between a child and his dad. It’s about a little boy’s fascination for his dad – no matter what his dad might do or say – and it’s a dad who says some horrible stuff. But as a kid it might take years to realise such things!
And you’re certainly not overly complacent with your dad. You show him saying all kinds of naïve, dumb things ranging from superstitious to sexist, things Syrian people around him would say or believe…
Yes, that’s what I wanted to show. There’s one level of reading, the little boy’s admiration for his dad. But then there’s that other layer, the commentary and especially the facts, which challenge this view. I leave the reader to be the judge. I tried my best to approach the whole story as honestly as I could.
One of your peers at the ILB this year who also wrote a graphic novel based on his childhood and focusing on his dad, Michel Kichka, said that for a long time he wasn’t even sure he’d be able to write it as long as his dad lived. I know your dad passed away. Was it difficult to find the right emotional distance?
Frankly? Not that difficult. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s relationship to their family. I had a friend at school who was constantly mocked by his dad – calling him “fat”, etc. – but that boy totally loved and admired his dad. From outside it was obvious his dad was a jerk. But because of that special magic spell he couldn’t see it. So for me it’s fascinating to observe how many years it takes children to realise how their parents really are. Some never get there.
Despite all his shortcomings, are you thankful to your dad for something?
Yes! See, in principle given his education level we should have been sent to a big city – Damascus or Aleppo – but he absolutely wanted to go back to the village where he grew up. So it was bizarre, almost surreal. We were put in a position to see and experience things we shouldn’t have normally seen or experienced. I shouldn’t have lived with farmers and gone to such a school. In Damascus I would have been sent to the International French School and hung out with the Syrian bourgeoisie. So I’m grateful he got me to see all that, to meet the people I met in that school, people who will never be given the chance to talk about their lives – and I’m glad I could do that in my book. It was great luck that I could witness that life, and… that I could get out of it!
Do you still find Gaddafi sexier than Assad and his “oversized forehead” – as little Riad did back then?
Hmmm, not really. But, see, Gaddafi was younger and he looked more fit and handsome, but then Assad was a fighter pilot. That’s cool too! Interestingly, if you look at the media coverage from back then, Gaddafi was presented as a playboy and a progressive. It’s also interesting to explore that hex that keeps people under the spell of their leaders, a bit like that of a dad’s over his child. It feels so very strange to think how people can’t realise that their leader is a terrible dictator. Surely they must know, you think. But in fact: they don’t!
How did you work to reconstruct the look and factual elements of rural Syria back then?
I worked on this book entirely from memory – I never asked my family or anyone around me. So of course many of them might have a different idea of what happened. But that’s the topic of the next book – their reaction! I totally relied on what I remembered.
From when you were two to six years old?
I have a very good memory going very far back, that’s just the way it is! I didn’t use any photos or documents. I drew it all entirely from memory. One thing I noticed afterwards when I found some photos of the village was that I had forgotten to draw the power lines that connected every house in the village. For some reason I had totally forgotten this.
You seem to be very cautious of political questions – you joked about those people asking your opinion on ISIS or the war in Syria.
I have nothing against those questions – the thing is, each time I think very hard to try to say something very intelligent, but the fact is: I don’t have a more informed opinion than anyone else following the TV news. The reality I describe – life in a small village near Homs in the 1980s – is very different from the Syria of today or that of before the war. The country has changed a lot – for example, I got on Google Earth after my book, and discovered that the place where the dump was had been turned into a public square – so yeah, it was a long time ago. It’s very hard for me to relate my experience to what’s happening today.
But you surely must feel close to what’s happening in Syria?
Yes and no. I don’t feel Syrian. Neither do I feel French, by the way. I feel I’m a comic author. Those are my people and they live the world over, irrespective of nations and borders. I often discover that I have more in common with that one Japanese author than with my neighbour next door. So I don’t feel I belong to the French or Syrian nation. Of course sometimes when I hear or read in the news about a place I knew as a child it moves me. But that’s it. I don’t have a greater emotional connection.
Who’s the ‘Arab of the Future’?
That’s what my father would say to get me go to school. He’d say: “The Arab of the future goes to school,” so I had to! Education was important and you needed to study to become this Arab of better tomorrows. There’s that obsolete nationalist ring to it. It’s like saying the French or German of the future. What will the German of 3030 be like? It’s a bit ridiculous. We all know that it won’t exist anymore. The future of humanity doesn’t belong to national groups.
You were a Charlie Hebdo contributor until six months before the attack. How did you experience the murders, the “Je suis Charlie” frenzy and the debates that followed?
To this day it is really hard for me to step back and analyse. Charlie was this bizarre, very heterogeneous collection of very different people – journalists, reporters, cartoonists. It was a strange, very anarchic process in many ways, with everyone wanting to be more leftwing than the other – outsmart each other with more radical left stances in endless, very loud debates and arguments. My position there was a bit special. I never did political cartoons – it’s never been my thing – so I contributed one strip, The Secret Life of Young People, until I got depressed chronicling depressing stories about the youth I observed on the streets. So six months before the attack I had already moved on to work for another weekly (Esther’s Notebooks in Nouvel Observateur). But even back then I’d never take part in editorial meetings. I’d send my stuff over the Internet. I actually didn’t read it much either. That was another strange thing about Charlie Hebdo: Everyone would talk and comment about it but no one actually read it! But sure, I totally worshipped Cabu – and Wolinsky and Charles were also great cartoonists. And of course, like all cartoonists I was totally shocked and traumatised by the attacks.
As the world was discovering Charlie with the attack, voices – mostly in the American press – accused the satirical paper of being racist and Islamophobic. What’s your opinion?
My opinion is that I didn’t know so many Americans spoke such good French and that so many of them read Charlie Hebdo! What am I supposed to say? It’s like asking me what I think about people who believe the sky is red. What am I supposed to answer to this?! I thought it was blue.
Let me turn the question around. Am I right to assume that if you had thought Charlie were racist or Islamophobic you wouldn’t have contributed to it?
You’d be absolutely right to assume so. Such accusations seem just totally absurd, but maybe I’m missing something. There’ll always be people who feel insulted. I don’t do political stuff but if I draw someone with a big nose, he’ll feel offended because small noses are considered nicer. It’s a never-ending story. People get every sensitive.
Do you have a favourite cartoonist? You mentioned Cabu. Who else inspired you?
I always loved Hergé. Tintin was a bit of a model for me technically. I also like the successive waves of awareness about his work: How he drew foreigners; how he depicted blacks or Arabs. Rather than condemn it, it’s fascinating to think about what it means about the mentality of his time and society. Crazy to think that’s the way European people thought back then! So, I really like what it says about a particular era. Another thing that fascinates me: How did a cartoon get so popular the world over – without having a single female protagonist in it?! Very strange if you think about it. And of course the story is great. Plus, he was one of the first ones to have the ambition of being read by all. Including people who usually don’t read cartoons. That’s what I wanted to do with The Arab of the Future.
You met with Berlin high school kids today. What were the best questions you got?
One asked me if I didn’t think that there were some good sides to dictatorship after all, for example, whether Saddam Hussein and Assad did something good – you know ‘all things considered’? It was interesting. He had a Russian accent and I understood he was a fan of strong leadership. Then later I saw he had Putin t-shirt on!
How did you answer him?
That Saddam was a bloody dictator who turned his country into a mess but that at the beginning of his reign he also received an award from UNESCO for promoting literacy in Iraq. He gave women voting rights and introduced quite a few progressive measures. It’s always interesting to see how such things can be intermingled. My dad adored Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad. He thought they were real progressives. “Go to school or you’ll be shot” – that was the spirit!