Riad Sattouf's memoir of his childhood in the Middle East stirred up a complicated swirl of emotions when the first volume was released in the U.S. last year. Many reviewers seemed fascinated by something beyond Sattouf's perspicacity and artistry. There was a kind of awe at his rash trampling of forbidden zones. His darkly ironic recollections of growing up in 1970s-80s Syria and Libya came with no mitigating calls for understanding (of the customs that prevailed in those countries' hinterlands) or forgiveness (for his narcissistic father). He rashly disdained to use the even-handed, respectful tone that's standard in discussions of cross-cultural issues.
Sattouf's withering disgust for the Arab world was physically as well as artistically risky. It's common for writers around the globe who criticize any aspect of Muslim culture to receive death threats. Sattouf, who wrote a (non-political) comic for the French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo from 2004-2014, saw nine of his former colleagues killed when jihadists attacked the publication's offices on January 7, 2015. And yet he went ahead and published his scathing memoir. You almost want to say he's got chutzpah.
Now, volume 2 of The Arab of the Future carries on the story. Like its predecessor, this installment is deceptively simple in tone and style. Young Riad, a tiny figure with fluffy blond hair and saucer eyes, gazes innocently upon oddities and outrages he's too young to understand. Except, of course, he does understand them — at least at some level — which is why the adult Sattouf remembers them.
The incidents that stuck with Sattouf range from petty injustices to true horrors. There are the torments inflicted by Riad's first teacher — his most withering characterization — who doesn't seem to know how to do anything besides sing the national anthem and whack kids' hands with her stick. There's also the fearsome school principal, who sometimes comes into their classroom. "He smoked and watched us in silence," Sattouf recalls. "Sometimes he would stare at one of us. We would look down, and when we looked at him again, he was still staring. Once he'd finished his cigarette, he would take the kid [who'd been made to stand in] the corner, and we wouldn't see him again all afternoon."
Young Riad never finds out what happens to kids in the principal's office. He does, however, learn of the atrocity inflicted on his cousin Leila, a single widow who lives with her parents. Riad likes Leila because she takes an interest in his drawing and even teaches him about perspective. She's a mild, friendly presence, her crossed eyes giving her a winsome quality. But when she gets pregnant, her father and brother murder her.
Now as then, such "honor killings" occur persistently in Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities, and Riad's village's response to the crime is appalling but not surprising. After the murderers have been in jail for three months, the judge — at the urging of the Sattouf family — declares they've committed "crime[s] of honor" and releases them. "They had become hugely respected men in the village," Sattouf notes.
Sattouf's father's response to the crime is particularly damning. Abdel-Razak is the same immature, posturing figure familiar from volume 1 — all gawky limbs, needy eyes and youthful puff of black hair. (Sattouf's ability to convey his father's character with just a few lines never ceases to amaze.) But when confronted with Leila's murder, Abdel-Razak reveals how truly malignant his narcissism is. First he waffles about whether to turn the murderers in to the police, and later he justifies the judge's action.
"I couldn't do anything. I'm just one man among all the other men in the family," he says. "The people in the village were starting to say that the Sattoufs were weak."
Even worse than Abdel-Razak's attitude is the fact that neither his wife nor his children can do anything about it. As with everything else, the whole family can only trail along in the mercurial patriarch's wake. Under Sattouf's pen, this state of affairs becomes an ingeniously apt microcosm of the larger world he grew up in. And if this installment is any indication, he has no plans to dial back his rage about it in volume 3.