Riad Sattouf is one of the most prominent cartoonists in the world right now. A regular contributor to “l’Obs” newspaper and a former “Charlie Hebdo” artist, Sattouf is also a filmmaker who received the 2010 Cesar Award — France’s equivalent of the Oscar — for Best First Feature Film. Sattouf has twice received the prize for best book at the Festival International de la Bande Desinee in Angouleme. The award has been won by a who’s who of some the world’s great cartoonists, but very few have ever received it twice. Sattouf received the second award earlier this year for his book “The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984,” his most acclaimed work to date, which has just been released in the United States by Metropolitan Books
The book tells the story of Sattouf’s parents — his father is Syrian and his mother French — and Sattouf’s childhood in Libya and Syria. The result is a tale that is both harrowing and funny, a great story of childhood and a child’s perspective on the world. While Sattouf resists the idea that his story can sum up or is representative of “the Middle East,” he clearly hopes that it will affect people’s understanding of the region and those who live there. As he put it, “complicating the Middle East is an essential thing.”
CBR News: Of all the subjects you could have tackled, why did you initially decide to write about your childhood?
Riad Sattouf: I have been making comics in France for fifteen years. I have published several books that are in some way, always inspired by reality and true events. I really enjoy trying to fictionalize reality. I had planned for years to tell my childhood in Middle East, but I was afraid to be confronted with it. Should I attack it by making a metaphor? By turning it into a fiction?
In 2011, when civil war began in Syria, I had to help a part of my family to flee from Syria. I had many problems in France to obtain the entries’ authorizations for them. I wanted to tell these moments of difficulty. But before I can arrive to that moment, I had to tell the story from the beginning. This is why I decided to start “The Arab of the Future.”
Did you remember these events so vividly? Did you have to ask relatives about things or doing research for reference?
I am fortunate — or unfortunate, it depends — to have very precise memories of my childhood. It is like visual memories, sensorial memories. There are not memories of dialogues, but smells, sounds, colors. For “The Arab of the Future,” I wanted to start only from what I had in mind. Even if it was wrong! I restored the dialogues, of course, but always from images I had in mind.
How did you decide on the title, “The Arab of the Future?” It’s a phrase your father uses near the end of the book, and it clearly has some resonance for you.
What you should know is, in French, “Arab” is a word that nobody uses. Even people of Arabic origin use wordsÂ that are deformations of this word. It’s a word that, in itself, has become almost pejorative. Yet, it is a word that defines a language, an origin; it is a word I like. To put side-by-side “Arab” and “future,” there was something nostalgic that appeared. It contains the obsolescence of nationalism.
Your father was a pan-Arabist and, forgive my American ignorance, but I’m curious how common that was in the ’80s. It’s a philosophy I associate more with the ’60s and ’70s.
In the book, I tell the story of my father, who was from a very poor farmer’s family in a small village near Homs, Syria. As he was the youngest in his family, he was able to go to school. He was very good, and had good results. He continued his studies and had applied for a scholarship to study in France. He obtained it, and became a Doctor in History. He worshiped school, education, because it took him from his peasant condition. He was obsessed with the idea of giving back to the Arab world he considered bigoted, ignorant and enslaved to powerful countries (USA and/or USSR) the result of what he had learned. He admired Nasser, Qaddafi and then Assad, was claiming his inheritance.
My father naturally wanted to participate at this movement by collaborating with them. It was for education, modernity, but my father was not for freedom and democracy. He dreamed of making a coup, he was convinced that he will have his moment. This paradox is central to the story I’m trying to tell.
I was fascinated by the way you used color in the book. Why did you decide to use a different hue for each location and how did you decide what colors to use?
I realized that in my head, memories had color. They were bright, but in different ways. For example, Libya was very sunny, sandy, so yellow was necessary. France and the French seaside in Brittany, was blue-gray. And for Syria, the red of the ground seemed pink.
In every country, in every part of the story, I allowed myself a single dominant color and the colors of the national flag. Using distinct colors also helps disorient the reader, as the characters of my story could be. After seeing lots of yellow pages, suddenly changing to blue creates a natural sense of disorientation that I wanted my readers to feel.
The book can be very dark — killing the dog in the street, for example — but there are moments of humor, like Georges Brassens as God, which made me laugh out loud.
Thank you! I tried to be honest with my childhood memories. This book tells a child’s memories, with his lack of judgment. I like to describe and explore children’s universe and perception of reality. Without comparing myself to such a master, I particularly admire Mark Twain and how he expresses childhood’s world and words. I have always been fascinated by the ability of adults to forget their childhood.
Looking back on these experiences of living in Libya and Syria, do you feel as though you have an understanding of what’s been happening in those countries over the past decade?
It is very difficult for me to talk about the current situation. I knew a small part of the Middle East in the 1980s — only a small village in Syria. I leave the reader make his own idea from my story. Let’s say that as a reader, I would always prefer the story told by an ignorant and illiterate Inuit, who describes his daily dinner, his hatred of cold, the harshness of his life, than the vision of the Western scientific in fleece jacket who knows all of the Inuit mythology but returns at night to sleep in his heated truck connected to internet.
One reason I ask this is because we are seeing a generation of cartoonists and artists and writers — people know Marjane Satrapi and Zeina Abirached, but there are many others — who have been looking at their own past and trying to understand history in a larger sense. I’m curious, do you think that these efforts have helped reshape public opinion and understanding?
I don’t really know what to say. I think it’s good that people tell their life story. The Middle East is specific. I think that the great opportunity I had was that I could grow up and live with people who normally never have the chance to tell their life story. The village where I lived was poor. Normally, my father, who had become a Doctor in History, would have taken us to live in Damascus, the capital, or at least in Homs, the city near the village. But he wanted to live in his native village. I saw things that, I think, are rarely shown and known. But I would always like the stories that complicate the history. If I had told my youth in southern Italy, no one would have thought that I was talking about the “European” world. Complicating the Middle East is an essential thing.
In addition to your work as a cartoonist, you also write and direct movies. How did you get the opportunity to do that, and what do you enjoy about the medium that you haven’t been able to do in comics?
Comic allowed me to direct two movies. I studied cinema in my youth, and making movies with actors was a wonderful experience. But comics was not a way to reach cinema. Comics are my life, and I will never give up this passion. Cinema is huge teams, it’s another language. Comics is a lonely, masturbatory job. I like comics more than anything, even in his ultra-depressing sides!
Until last year, you were a contributor to “Charlie Hebdo,” which in the eyes of many in the United States and in the Arab world is seen as a racist publication. I wondered if you could talk about what the publication meant to you and why you were a longtime contributor.
In “Charlie Hebdo,” I wasn’t doing actuality drawings or political cartoons. I drew a comic series — the only one in the newspaper — called “The Secret Life of Young People” that was about scenes I witness in the street, featuring youth. I was not really a part of the newspaper editorial; I almost never went there. I left “Charlie Hebdo” a few months before the murders to join another French newspaper, “The New Observer.” “Charlie Hebdo” really did not work at that time; there were no more readers. I am very surprised that so many Americans seem to have known the content of the newspaper, and especially that so many Americans are speaking and reading French!
Seriously, I think it is ignorance that makes people say such things. The cartoonists and the journalists of “Charlie Hebdo” were anything but racists. They were leftists — almost extreme leftists — who used a particular hard humor, in a French tradition, nihilistic, extreme at everything. Cabu, for example, was an outstanding cartoonist and was the idol of many French who grew up with his drawings.
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