Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985: A Graphic Memoir by Riad Sattouf Review

Riad starts school in Syria while his mother demands modern appliances for their flat, sending her husband to the city to buy a washing machine and gas stove. Riad’s father begins making connections with important officials and plans for his family’s luxury villa… 

Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985, is an utterly fantastic follow-up to the amazing first book - this series is shaping up to be a modern masterpiece like Persepolis!

There’s no other way to say this: Syria is barbaric. We saw some pretty shocking things in the first book but this second book really shows how completely fucked up this country is (or was - maybe it’s different today? Probably not). There’s corporal punishment in Riad’s school where kids got their hands smashed by the teacher’s stick, while the kids are even more violent, tying live frogs to the wheels of a bike and splattering them as they ride! 

Riad’s father tries to show his son what a real man he is by hunting sparrows with a shotgun(!) - the amount of meat on a sparrow is just pathetic and the shotgun shells are beyond overkill for such tiny birds. As silly as Riad makes his dad look at times, there’s genuine love for the man, particularly as he’s shown more often than not working hard to make life less dismal in Syria for his French wife. 

There’s far more darkness in this memoir than I’d expected. One poor kid, Omar, with a burned face (from tea left carelessly lying around where babies crawl - a problem in rural Syria apparently) who befriended Riad, got beaten all the time for smelling bad (his family lived in abject poverty) though forced himself to smile through all of it. And then one winter he starts coughing and can’t stop, until one day he doesn’t come to school. Ever again. 

It’s quietly heartbreaking but that’s nothing compared to the shocker in how women are treated. I won’t go into that particular scene here because readers should experience the full impact firsthand but to call Syrian women second class citizens is an understatement - it’s like they’re almost on the level of animals! 

The brilliance of these memoirs is how insightful they are in showing us what real life in a country many readers will not know about is like. From the five to six hour power outages every day, to the worn-out doctor fed up with dealing with superstitious women who, tragically, only go to him when their babies are dead, Riad is informative but always entertaining too and his stories are filled with memorable characters and moments. 

As sad as some of these episodes are, this book really is an absolutely captivating, powerful, sharply realised, and moving read - you know you’re in the hands of a masterful storyteller when they make you deeply care about a story you wouldn’t necessarily think would usually be for you. The Arab of the Future, 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985 is highly recommended - easily one of the finest comics of the year!

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