Page 45 Review by Stephen
I promise you, this is an English translation; I've only been able to find French language interior art!
"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..."
One of my favourite pronouncements from Riad's Dad in THE ARAB OF THE FUTURE VOL 1, it's typical of the man's engagingly ridiculous reductions of complex situations to simplistic solutions in search of an easy life.
Most of the comparisons I see bandied about by the likes of the Observer / Guardian are to Spiegelman, Satrapi and Sacco, but Sattouf's recollections are far closer in tone to Guy Delisle's equally entertaining PYONGYANG, SHENZHEN, BURMA CHRONICLES and JERUSALEM, in that they're more observations of individual human quirks and habits or societal customs and behaviour, all seen through the eye of a wide-eyed six-year-old growing up in Syria, but with the added reflection of a more experienced adult.
It's by no means big bundle of laughs from start to finish. Even within his father's extended Syrian family there will be some pretty grim encounters and if you thought your first few days at school were a nightmare, Riad's trepidation proves completely justified. But it is overwhelmingly an entertainment, as signalled by the art with its curvaceous cartoon forms, gesticulations and expressions.
It's those very skills which flip that first term at school from horrific to mesmerising for the book's audience, lucky as we are to be viewing from afar, not just in the playground but in class itself, for the teacher is visually riveting. A woman of imposing stature, her face is as soft as her voice, full of love and devotion towards her country and country... until it isn't, and the entire panel flames red. In addition her garb is a curious combination of modesty and flesh, wearing a hijab above and a very tight, very short shirt exposing her thick, muscular legs and huge, bulging calves atop pencil-thin high heels. She commands the attention of the reader as much as she undoubtedly would have the pupils. Woe betide any for whom that wasn't the case.
Riad is shown paralysed, utterly subjugated by his situation.
There's so much more to learn alongside the lad, for he's new to both the world and to the country, his outsider status compounded by his startling blonde hair inherited from his French mother which is taken by one of his cousins in particular as a sure sign that Riad is Jewish. This is far from good news if you're growing up in Syria.
As the memoir progresses we're introduced to more affluent areas of the country, but although his father is comparatively well off, having secured a position at Damascus University, he chooses - to his credit - to set up home in the desperately impoverished village of Ter Maaleh close to the barely more affluent town of Homs in order to be close to his family. Not all of whom feel or act close to him. Both his mother and elderly half-sister whom we meet later adore him, but the men are another matter completely.
Construction is not the country's forte: you'll find cracks everywhere, even throughout the more lavish villas. Against all evidence, Riad's forever daydreaming Dad enjoys the delusion that his villa will be built with superior craftsmanship - if it's ever built at all. That would require both action and expenditure, neither of which is in his nature.
During the family's first ever holiday by the sea, he doesn't want to stray further than their balcony.
"Given how much it costs we should make the most of our room."
Then there are the rare words of wisdom he issues after a gang of holiday makers rise up from a swimming pool to ransack a stall selling overpriced inflatable rings in its vendor's absence. Riad wants one too and suggests that they must be free if everyone's making off with them.
"We're not thieves. And just because everyone does something, that doesn't mean you should do it, too."
Tellingly, however, this constitutes a dissuasive instruction, not one designed to galvanise his son into action. Confronted with stark inequalities or even serious injustices, his mantra remains "That's life..."
It's only after a year or so of moving to Syria and their starkly under-furnished home (with its attendant cracks, of course), that he reluctantly shells out for a washing machine and a stove, after Riad's surprisingly stoical Mum has had to make do with cooking on a camping stove set on the floor. Paying the price for French food is an annual luxury, and when buying his son's school uniform he opts not for one made of actual cloth with a belt, but the cheap, plastic version whose fake belt is painted on!
This he justifies with the seemingly sage observation that uniforms are a great equaliser, and in others I'd suspect the sacrifice of pride in order to appear as poor as other parents would be honest and noble. But he buys Riad a book bag with pockets which Sattouf renders in lurid green, setting him exceptionally apart from his classmates who carry their pencils around in thin carrier bags.
It's a fascinating upbringing, full of so much which may seem alien, odd and sometimes outright awful, but we've all of us been children and, even if the contexts are different, you'll find far more in common with this than you might at first imagine. Perhaps I should presume. I certainly found far more in common with these experiences that I first imagine: dreading my first days at three different schools; being proved right twice; humiliating inability to summon any coordination or sports skills (I was briefly nicknamed Sebastian un-Coe); terrifying encounters with kids outside my social experience; bewildering, wrong-headed, paternal epithets; the thrill of early holidays; leaning to draw, and a love of new languages, partly through TINTIN.