Page 45 Review by Stephen
"On TV, they said that Gaddafi had announced new laws forcing people to swap jobs. Teachers would now be famers, and farmers would be teachers."
At which point Riad's dad, teaching at university, decided it was time to leave Libya.
Welcome to a great big book of behaviour, all seen through the eyes of a pre-school Riad Sattouf and lavishly sprinkled with the brashest and rashest of generalisations from his perpetually pontificating, pan-Arabist father.
Set in the early 1980s, it's autobiographical travel with great comedic timing and an eye for the absurd, so making it highly recommended to fans of Guy Delisle's equally entertaining PYONGYANG, SHENZHEN, BURMA CHRONICLES and JERUSALEM. There is much that was absurd in Libya and Syria then, but this is as much about the very odd children and adults whom Riad encounters after his Syrian father meets his French mother while studying in Paris, determined to become a 'Doctor' but majoring in history because blood made him squirm. Actually, he always had his sights set on politics and quite fancied staging a coup when young.
Oxford offers him a job as an assistant professor - "Oxford!!! Wow, classy!" exclaims Riad's mum excitedly - which he rejects somewhat petulantly because they misspell his name in their letter. Instead he plumps for a post in Libya because, he proclaims, they get his name right on the envelope. They don't. This elicits from his wife the first of many more looks of wide-eyed bewilderment to come. I don't think she ever imagined a life in Libya.
So it is that they arrive in Tripoli to be shown their accommodation fit for a university associate professor and his young family.
"Welcome to our People's State, Doctor... Free of charge, of course! In our People's State, all housing is free."
Inside it was yellow, and water dripped from the ceiling.
"Ah, it's nothing. It never rains."
"Anyway, it will dry soon. This is the "Little Green Book, where the Leader explains his vision of society and democracy."
Gaddafi was a dictator.
"You must read it. It's truly a masterpiece."
"Hang on, my brother, you forgot to give me the keys!"
"Keys? There are no keys. Look, there's no lock..."
There really isn't. They take a stroll round their neighbourhood and, upon their return, discover their bags neatly arranged outside their new house. Riad's dad knocks on their door.
"Hello, brother. How can I help you?"
"Hello to you, brother. What are you doing in my house?"
"But, brother, this is my house. It was empty... The Leader gave all citizens the right to live in unoccupied houses, as you know."
"What? Listen, I'm a professor at the university! I'm going to the police!"
"There's no point. I'm a policeman."
The father who led his family to Libya scratches his nose and sniffs, staring into the distance with a small smile on his face. That's his resilient reaction to humiliation and it is the first and only time that Satouff signposts this. It isn't, however, the last time you'll see it.
Some of this reality is so ridiculous that it verges on episodes of The Simpsons, and I extend that comparison to the family unit with a long-suffering mother and a father was in no way stupid but utterly oblivious to the contradictory nature his broad, sweeping statements.
"Hee hee! Have you ever seen dollars? The best currency in the world, look! Beautiful dollars!"
He hates America.
"The Jews are our enemies. They're occupying Palestine. They're the worst race in the world. Well, them and the Americans of course, who are their biggest pals..."
"Why are you telling him that? It's total crap..."
He loves to lecture on God (whom he doesn't believe in), Satan, soldiers ("Soldiers are morons! I want to give orders, not take them!") internal politics, international politics, religions and races in a manner that's (at times but not always) almost sublimely blithe.
"Christians? Pfft. What's the point in being Christian in a Muslim country? It's just a provocation... When you live in a Muslim country, you should do as the Muslims do... It's not complicated. Just convert to Islam and you'll be fine..."
Ah, there's that long-suffering look to the heavens again! I can just hear Marge Simpson's "Hmmm..."
On Libya's Gaddafi and Syria's Assad, he declares:
"Of course they're dictators! I'm not a moron! But it's different with Arabs....
"You have to be tough with them. You have to force them to get an education, make them go to school.... If they decide for themselves, they do nothing. They're lazy-ass bigots even though they have the some potential as everyone else..."
Are you sensing that 'contradictory' element I mentioned?
Un-phased by his own inconsistencies, Abdul is at heart a dreamer - whether about education and pan-Arabism or his own goal to build a big villa in Syria - and he's admirably undaunted aboard, or at least determined to cope, constantly seeing silver linings like laughing at rats and "Look at the lights!" as the family traipses through the extraordinary squalor of Homs. It's there that they encounter the aftermath of an execution:
"They just leave them hanging like that?"
"That's life! It's horrible, but it's necessary. It sets an example. This way, people stay law-abiding. You have to frighten them..."
He doesn't fluster easily, is what I'm saying.
Riad as an adult narrator doesn't comment on any of this. Aged 4 or 5, he doesn't understand a word of it; he only knows that he adores his dad. He does, however, have a fully developed sense of smell which permeates his recollections and evocations and takes most of these novel experiences in his stride because at his age everything is novel. Nothing is alien because he has no comparison points for familiarity. I'd have run wailing from some the kids he encounters. They've been thoroughly indoctrinated into religion-based hatred but - with one notable exception - roam undisciplined and even delinquent (you'll see), defying their parents and mistreating animals atrociously.
But this is a book of observation, not judgement, so even as I typed it I realised that last sentence seems inappropriate. It's a comic containing remarkable customs - like Riad's grandmother licking the young boy's eyeball clean of grit - and strange behaviour, like his uncle's aversion to the sea.
Each country is colour-coded: while in France all is blue, Libya's ochre and Syria's in pink. That's neat in itself, but the effect of this assignation isn't superficial, it's immersive. It signifies that you are now in that country and you're not necessarily getting out. Your life for the foreseeable future is within that country: deal with it, even if it means you are destined to go to school with those who have vowed to beat you to a pulp.
Where they end up in Syria is particularly bleak. Like Libya it's unfinished, but plastic bags fly on the wind and so much of it looks like a wasteland or a landfill littered with human faeces. There are no shops and no bars until they travel to Homs by bus which, like the taxi which they took from the airport, has a gaping hole in its undercarriage so that you can see tarmac rolling by below you.
Looking out of the window, Riad's dad observes:
"This was a forest when I was young. Now it's the modern world."