A child’s-eye view of upheaval in the Arab world and its relations with the West.
The first work by the acclaimed French cartoonist and filmmaker to be published in English is sure to extend his renown. “My name is Riad,” writes Sattouf on the first page. “In 1980, I was two years old and I was perfect.” However, such perfection came at a cost for the blond-haired, bright-eyed, delicately featured protagonist, particularly after his family left his mother’s native France to further his academic father’s vision of “pan-Arabism. He was obsessed with education for the Arabs. He thought that Arab men had to educate themselves to escape from religious dogma.” Yet there was no escape from religious dogma, political repression, or rootless poverty. The author chronicles his father’s spurning of an appointment from Oxford because “they misspelled my name in the letter” for one that moved the family to Libya, where dreams of equality came at a price, since squattership seemed to trump ownership where living quarters were concerned. Though a return to France would have been welcome, the father moved the family to his native Syria, which was not what he remembered or envisioned, where the son found the morning call to prayer to be “the saddest voice in the world.” It appears through the narrator’s innocent eyes that much of the adult world was seriously out of touch with reality, though he felt even more threatened by his peers and relations, who made fun of his “ugly yellow Jewish hair.” Somehow, the narrative is both very funny and very sad, though the fact that this book even exists shows that a boy’s artistic gifts were finally permitted to flourish.
Sattouf has also worked as a columnist for the satirical Charlie Hebdo, but the social commentary here is more wistful and melancholy than sharp-edged. This first volume of a memoir “to be continued” is subtly written and deftly illustrated, with psychological incisiveness and humor.