I agree with the article in The New Yorker, that The Arab of the Future feels like an act of revenge by Riad Sattouf at his father for being dragged to volatile Libya and Syria during his childhood. Certainly, you cannot help but feel Riad’s stunned shock when they escape after one particularly horrific experience only to voluntarily return.
Abdel Razek, is conveyed through Riad, a child narrator who blindly repeats his father’s arrogant, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic and naive rants, with only the occasional critique from his hugely passive French wife, Clémentine.
Riad’s experiences of these countries were traumatic and these harsh experiences are reflected in an unflattering portrayal of Syria and Libya with some particularly brutal scenes. Sattouf’s rendering of the locals is also physically unflattering in comparison to Riad’s own family. Ursula Lindsey’s article, ‘The Future of the Arab’, also notes how some academics have critiqued the novel for the unflattering stereotypes used to depict Arabs.
The Arab of the Future has a distinct place with other similar graphic novels that depict the struggles of a country in conflict or under a dictatorship. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Game of Swallows by Zeina Abriached, and Irimina by Barbara Yelin are just a few that I am aware of. The Guardian also recommends Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco, which I have bought and am eagerly waiting to read.
Sattouf is singular from the other texts in distinguishing his experience of life in different countries, for as the plot progresses between France, Libya and Syria, each country is given their own washed out colour: yellow, blue, or red. There is also a clear and distinct characterisation of Riad’s father, for example, his sniffing and rubbing his nose when he knows he is in the wrong, which could be seen as a cute memorable quirk, or a peevish mannerism of an unredemptive character.
I do have to admit that my hackles rose on reading the New Yorker article because of Sattouf’s arrogant and sexist manner towards the reporter. I do find it hard to separate the author from their work at times. But overall, it was a graphic novel that provoked a reaction, which is great for book club and class discussions.
If you were considering teaching this, or any graphic novel, in class I thoroughly recommend Scott McLoud’s Understanding Comics for helping to lay the foundation of understanding comic terminology and analysis.
The novel is unique and depicts a life under more than one cruel regime from a child’s unfiltered experiences. But I fear most graphic novels on this topic are doomed to be compared to Persepolis and Satrapi’s ability to bring out irony in the bleakest of circumstances.