How A French Kid Tried to Assimilate in the Middle East

A cartoonist draws his childhood in 1980s-era Syria.

Riad Sattouf / Metropolitan Books

The Syrian Civil War has raged for over five and a half years at the cost of around half a million lives. Amid the devastation, the story of Syrian refugees and immigrants fleeing to Europe—and the subsequent political and cultural pushback—is, by now, a familiar one. The most recent United Nations figures count over 4.8 million Syrian refugees, of which over one million have requested asylum in Europe. Upon their arrival, often in unwelcoming environments, the migrants confront questions of nationalism, endure debates about integration and assimilation, and negotiate newly hyphenated identities.

Riad Sattouf’s graphic-memoir series, The Arab of the Future, details a journey taken in precisely the opposite direction several decades ago, but it’s one that nevertheless provokes many of the same questions. In the 1980s, as the child of a Syrian father and a French mother, Sattouf traveled from France to Libya and Syria, before returning as a teenager to France in 1990. Riad now works in Paris as a filmmaker and cartoonist—at one point at Charlie Hebdo. Though the context has changed drastically, Sattouf can still draw lines from his childhood experience through to the ongoing clash of cultures and the question of what it means to assimilate.

Driving the Sattoufs’ move east was his father’s commitment to pan-Arabism. Riad’s father, Abdel-Razak, had left his remote village outside Homs to study at the Sorbonne, where he earned a doctorate in history and fell in love. He returned to Syria with his wife, Clementine, and his son in hopes of contributing to his homeland and raising Riad as an “Arab of the future.” The books illustrate how Sattouf straddled the Western world of his mother and the Middle Eastern world of his father. Though raised with two nationalities, he now steers away from the idea of nationalism and the label of French Syrian, preferring instead to call himself a cartoonist. As he put it in a recent email interview, “I have more in common with a Japanese mangaka, [‘manga artist’] than with my downstairs neighbor in Paris!”

The first volume of the series deals with Sattouf’s years as a toddler in Qaddafi’s Libya, where at one point he was frightened awake by a 4 a.m. call to prayer he calls “the saddest sound in the world;” later, his father reflected that “Westerners think the whole world should be exactly like them, just because they’re the most powerful ... but that’s only temporary.” The second volume, The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985, was recently published in the United States, and follows Sattouf’s first year of school in Ter Maaleh, his father’s ancestral village.

(Riad Sattouf / Metropolitan Books)

Riad’s schooling was replete with religious and political indoctrination. Corporal punishment, dealt by his formidable teacher for the smallest of infractions, was a feature of each school day. Sattouf may have hated it, but his father believed “it was necessary to force people to change, and be educated, and grow, whether they like[d] it or not. The brutality was a way to speed the process.”

“My father wanted to educate the new ‘Arab man,’ that he wanted to be considered equal to the ‘Western man’ who had dominated Middle East for so long,” said Sattouf. Abdel-Razak fought against the image of the “‘Arab of the past,’ [who was a] bigot, ignorant, and dominated by the colonial regimes.”

Another lesson Sattouf learned was the art of ideological camouflage. The novelty of his blond hair and French origin drew attention and interrogations from classmates, who accused him of being Jewish. With school textbooks critical of the state of Israel and daily games of “War against Israel” on the playground, Sattouf adapted to his environment. He wrote in an email, “I became extremely anti-Semitic, more than them, so they couldn't believe I was Jewish, and so they would let me live. It was a way to survive.” In his new book, he also recounts how Muslim women in Ter Maaleh observed certain rules: They could only eat the men’s leftovers, they had to cover themselves up, and their marriages were primarily seen as reflections on their families. Sattouf’s classmates echoed what they had been told, including that women were susceptible to Satan. Abdel-Razak himself defended polygamy, and at one point, Sattouf heard his parents whispering about an honor killing in the village.

(Riad Sattouf / Metropolitan Books)

As a Western and non-religious woman, though, Sattouf’s mother held an unusual position in the community. She didn’t adhere to the strict gender rules, but she also wasn’t subject to the villagers’ judgment. In an email, Sattouf attributed this discrepancy to his father’s exalted position in the community: “He was surrounded with a kind of aura of importance, he was the one who had seen the world and came back. ... People felt ignorant in front of him, and so did not dare to criticize him face-to-face.”

Abdel-Razak exhibited a complicated relationship to religion, an oversized sense of self that his small village could barely contain, and a commitment to progress that didn’t always match up to the reality of Syria under Hafez al-Assad. “My father was a living paradox, that’s what I want to show in the book,” Sattouf wrote to me. “He was torn: [on one] side, he was for modernity and education, and at the same time he believed in Satan and black magic. He was for education, but he wasn’t for democracy.”

In one scene excerpted here, Sattouf’s teacher explains  the voting process ahead of the 1985 presidential election: “Tomorrow a great event will take place in our country! There will be a presidential election! That means we must all say yes to our president, Hafez al-Assad! ... Without him, Syria would destroy itself and we would no longer exist.” (As in the previous two elections since the older Assad had come to power in 1970, he was the only candidate on the ballot. In 1985, he won with 100 percent of the vote, “a world record!,” Sattouf observed.)

(Riad Sattouf / Metropolitan Books)

Sattouf’s method of writing involves a form of time travel. “It was quite simple really, although sometimes painful to go there,” he explained. “It’s like a place in my head that still exist[s], where I can go back.” Sattouf was referring to a place of childhood memory, but the physical places that formed the backdrop of those memories no longer exist in the same way; his old Syrian village has been bombed, and the nearby city of Homs completely ravaged in the war. “Sometimes I am surrounded by memories of smell, details, colors. It’s strange to see that a part of the world still live[s] somewhere in our brain. I have very vivid memories of that period. I remember how I thought (or rather, how I did not think!).”

While his books don’t yet deal with modern-day politics, Sattouf says that trouble getting his family members out of Syria after the start of the civil war is part of what inspired him to write them. “I think I have seen things rarely seen,” Sattouf said. He added, “The children of these villages never [have] access to testimony. They never tell their stories. I am very happy to have seen what I have seen and to be able to tell it now.”

The images in this article have been excerpted from Riad Sattouf’s book, The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985: A Graphic Memoir.