The Arab of the Future 2, by Riad Sattouf

The New York Times calls this graphic memoir "a disquieting yet essential read," and I must agree. Sattouf grew up in Lebanon and Syria in the 1980s; his father was Syrian and his mother French. Blond and sensitive, little Riad has trouble adjusting to life in a small Syrian village after his father moved the family there, though not nearly as much trouble as his mother, faced with intermittent electricity, cooking over a camp stove, and no Arabic language skills. Riad loves his family and his two closest friends from school, but school itself is a source of confusion and fear. The teacher is prone to hitting the students' knuckles with a ruler, and the lessons are learned by rote without any comprehension encouraged. Riad's father loves Syria and seeks to further his social standing by hobnobbing with generals and other elites, but it's clear that the assistant professor is out of place, and the children of these society men are often cruel to Riad.

When a shocking event occurs, the Western reader, persistently a bit uncomfortable with this strange Syrian life, is jerked out of place and made to look straight at the cultural gap between them and us. Riad's summer vacations in France put this prominently on display: in France, he goes to vast shopping malls and grocery stores and his grandparents are not concerned with what he will be, while in Syria there is only Syrian food and a father who insists his son will be a doctor. We feel for Riad, with his blond curls, caught between two worlds, and wonder what will become of him in a land so different from our own. Part 3 is eagerly awaited.


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