One way to gain insight into a culture is to see what its people are reading. Topping the French charts lately has been The Arab of the Future 6, the final volume of a series that has been a massive best-seller in France.
The Arab of the Future is a bande dessinée, or graphic novel. It’s popular not only in France but around the world, having been translated into more than a dozen languages. Written and illustrated by Riad Sattouf, one of France’s top cartoonists, it tells the story of his childhood in the Middle East and France.
Riad’s heritage spans two very different cultures. His mother is from Brittany and his father from Syria, and they met when the father was pursuing a doctorate at the Sorbonne. They married, started a family, and moved to Libya when Riad was four years old.
Libya was a shock, a place wildly different from France. Leader Muammar Gaddafi promoted “Islamic socialism,” instituting religious law and nationalizing large swaths of the Libyan economy. He also outlawed private property, so if you forgot to lock your house when you left, another family would just move in and take it—as happened to the Sattoufs. Kaddafi worked to spread his revolution throughout the Arab world and Riad’s father was a fervent believer, hoping Riad would become “the Arab of the future.”
When the series begins, we see little Riad adapt to this new world, though he stands out with his fair skin and golden curls. He makes friends, learns Arabic, and settles into a pleasant life. But then his father uproots the family and moves them to his ancestral village in Syria.
If you thought Libya was unusual, you haven’t seen anything yet. Riad’s blonde hair makes him different, and different in Syria means you’re a Jew, and in Syria Jews could be killed. This leads to some scary moments for Riad, his introduction to a society where violence is prized…to the point where honor killings are accepted.
When Riad’s father takes a new job, this time in Saudi Arabia, Riad’s mother refuses to follow him and moves back to France with Riad and his two younger brothers. Here Riad goes through culture shock all over again. It is fascinating to see French society through the eyes of a child who is, indeed, French, but for whom this is all now new.
Riad’s father periodically visits the family in France, and they all vacation together in Syria, but relations between the parents become more and more tense. Finally, on a visit to France, Riad’s father cleans out the family’s bank account and absconds with the youngest brother, taking him to an unknown location in Syria. It feels like he has kidnapped the boy, but as a father he is within his rights, and he and his son vanish. The authorities are powerless to do anything, the mother falls into a depression, and Riad’s life is in turmoil yet again.
In the latest and final volume of the series, we follow Riad as he comes of age, pursuing his calling as a cartoonist and finding professional success. And—the hardest part—he confronts the many traumas of his childhood. As a friend tells him, “If you went to a shrink, you’d be the patient of a lifetime!”
The book, and the series, ends with a surprise family reconciliation, but not what you would expect…like so much else in the series.
The Arab of the Future is funny, touching, enlightening, infuriating, and much more—it’s easy to see why the French love it. It tells the story of a child raised between two worlds, offering a unique look at both French and Arab societies, and is a great read in any language
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Provence and California. He is the author of the best-selling An Insider’s Guide to Provence and the best-sellers One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Read more at Life in Provence.