It was a dark and stormy night, this Thursday, December the 8th, and yet a dedicated group of seven book club enthusiasts wended their way into the mist-shrouded hills of Berkeley to Nancy’s house. Our book this month was the graphic memoir The Arab of The Future: A Childhood in the Middle East. Reactions to the book were mixed, but it certainly provoked a lively discussion, thus proving its merits as a book club selection. It was also a delightfully quick read, which was perfect for the holiday season.
Riad Sattouf is a cartoonist, filmmaker and former contributor to the magazine Charlie Hebdo. In this book, he uses cartoons to describe the first six years of his life as he moved with his Syrian father and French mother to various towns in Libya, France and Syria. The illustrations are charming, and yet the life he describes is often disturbing. His father has a strong influence on the young boy, but he is a complex and not all together likeable character. His mother seems a more sympathetic, yet we found her somewhat of a mystery. For example, we couldn’t see why she put up with some of the more uncomfortable aspects of their lives in Libya and Syria. Of course, the narrator of the story is supposed to be Sattouf’s six year old self, so he would have had a limited understanding of his parents’ thoughts and of the dynamics of their marriage. In fact, this “child’s eye” view is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book, as the reader also has a child’s limited access to the world of the story and, like the protagonist, we are forced to guess at the various forces and power dynamics shaping this world. It also reveals a child’s focus, which was both endearing and sometimes frustrating. For example, when the family relocated the main character would often provide vivid details about the smells of his new home and the way strangers reacted to his appearance (he had long, blonde hair). This was wonderful, but often left us in the dark about other important details about the move, such as what the family’s motivations were for making it.
The limitations of the central character’s understanding certainly made sense given his age. This book is the first in a series, and it will be interesting to see how the main character’s understanding of his circumstances is developed in the books to come. I think a few of us enjoyed the book enough to want to read future volumes. Others are interested in reading more about Syria and Libya during the early 1980’s, as the book’s descriptions peaked our curiosity about the political and social landscape of that period and how it shapes the region today. There was some concern, however, that the book’s portrayal of Libya and Syria could be deemed offensive, as there were many disturbing scenes in the novel involving, for example, the treatment of women and the blatant anti-Semitism of both adults and children. It definitely was not the most flattering portrait of life in the Middle East. Since this was a memoir of the author’s own childhood, however, we discussed if he was obligated to portray things as honestly as he remembers them, or if he should strive to correct existing cultural stereotypes and biases, which, after all, might be shaping his own processes of self-refection.
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