For most westerners, the Middle East is a frightening and poorly understood part of the world. It’s impossible to develop an appreciation for the diversity of its people, its rich history, and the range of life experience in the region if you only rely on western news reports. In the aftermath of 9/11, I felt obligated to learn more about the area, its culture, and its people. Since then, I’ve read more than a couple dozen books by Middle Eastern authors or western journalists stationed in the region. I still feel as if I’ve barely skimmed the surface of what there is to learn, but I’ve thoroughly appreciated most of the books I’ve read. On perhaps the lighter side of my personal catalog are two graphic novels from authors with deep Middle Eastern roots.
I first read Persepolis, in the summer of 2013. At the time, I was focused on my French studies and had placed my inquiry of the Middle East on hold. My French reading comprehension was getting to the point where I could begin to tackle more difficult subjects. Still, my vocabulary was just beyond basic and I lacked exposure to slang and colloquial expressions. While browsing the adult stacks of French titles at my excellent public library, I chanced upon Persepolis (there is also an English translation). I was thrilled. There in my hands was a memoir in French, by an Iranian-born author employing current-day speech, complete with pictures to aid my comprehension. I couldn’t have imagined a better title to satisfy my interests.
Fast-forward to last spring when my daughters’ (I have twins) English teacher assigned Persepolis. I was eager for them to read it and discuss it with me but I knew that I’d probably forgotten much of the story. So, I checked out the French version from the library and reread it. I almost never read a book more than once. Yet, I found that I loved Persepolis as much the second time through as I had the first.
Persepolis, written and illustrated by Marjane Satrapi, is a masterful work. Divided into four volumes, it recounts the author’s childhood growing up in Iran, her debilitating adolescence obtaining a Western education in Austria, and her defeated return to her native country. It’s a remarkable story that has many jaw-dropping moments. Satrapi left Iran at the age of 14, shortly after the Ayatollah came to power when life changed dramatically for the intellectual elite. Her parents sent her to Europe to study, in part to nourish her precocious intellect, but also to protect her from her own unreserved assertiveness, which might well have landed her behind bars had she stayed in Iran.
The thought of sending a 14-year old to a country where she barely knows a soul and doesn’t speak the language is unimaginable. Yet, that is what her extraordinarily devoted parents chose to do. Satrapi illustrates in both pictures and words, how such a decision might have made sense. There is much to unpack in this book: life in Iran during and after the Shah; the immigrant experience in Europe; the struggles of adolescence; one’s perceived obligation to one’s parents or to one’s children; and much more.
Satrapi is a captivating storyteller whose imagination and sense of humor ease the reader through a multitude of unfamiliar and stressful situations. Her personal history is only one among millions, but it brought me a tiny bit closer to understanding an intriguing and complicated part of the world.
The Arab of the Future
Whenever I travel to France or Quebec, I have to set aside considerable amounts of time to visit bookstores. Just as in the United States, independent bookselling markets around the world have suffered with the rise of Amazon and other online storefronts. However, compared to the United States, brick and mortar bookstores are relatively abundant in France. In 2015, while browsing the bande dessinée (comics and graphic novel) section of a store in Montpellier, I came across the first book in the still-to-be-completed series, The Arab of the Future, by Riad Sattouf.
By this time, I’d read many graphic novels in French and become a huge fan of the genre. As I flipped through the pages of L’Arabe du Futur, I was again thrilled to have found another memoir centered in the Middle East. This time, the author was French, the son of a Syrian father and French mother who met and fell in love while both were studying at the Sorbonne.
In book 1 of the series, Sattouf recounts some of his earliest childhood experiences, undoubtedly aided by his parents’ retelling. Life in France seems happy and carefree. When Riad is just two-years-old, however, his father decides to relocate the family to Libya. Having just received his PhD in History, the father is determined to play a role in educating Middle Eastern people, guiding them away from mysticism and toward enlightenment.
Life in Tripoli, where the father has obtained a teaching position, proves extremely difficult for Sattouf’s mother. One wonders what exactly attracted her to her husband in the first place and why she stays with him. Her new life in Libya is largely confined to the inside of their cinderblock apartment. The father is chauvinistic and condescending toward his wife, while simultaneously gentle and supportive with his son. The family returns to France to wait out the birth of a second son. Shortly after the baby’s arrival, the father renews his commitment to helping rebuild a new Middle East—one that is free from the shackles of a colonial past. By the end of the first book, the young family has settled in Syria where they live close to the father’s mother and other paternal relatives.
The family is still in Syria at the beginning of book 2. Sattouf is now 6-years-old and heading to school in his father’s native village. As you might imagine, the scholastic setting oscillates between highly stressful and downright brutal. Meanwhile, the father’s behavior continues to be problematic. He’s supposedly a modern man with lofty ideals but he does little to intervene when confronted with gross injustices. Sattouf tells the story through his inner child’s eyes. As a reader, you see through the father’s feeble justifications. Yet, the young Sattouf’s innocence and near-total acceptance of his father’s rationals seem completely natural and understandable.
In books 3 and 4, the family bounces between Syria and France. This cross-cultural tug-of-war is at the heart of the parents’ deteriorating relationship. When the father takes a job in Saudi Arabia, the exasperated mother refuses to follow. The parents separate and so do the children when the father unilaterally decides to take the youngest son back to Syria. The story does not end there. Sattouf, a prolific graphic novelist and author of other acclaimed series, expects to release book 5 before the end of this year.
Like Marjane Satrapi, Riad Sattouf is able to tell his story with humor and compassion. The childlike objectivity that permeates his narrative allows readers to suspend, at least a little bit, their judgment of an extremely unfamiliar way of life. Again, I feel compelled to emphasize that The Arab of the Future is only the experience of a single individual, but it is chock full of eye-opening passages, however incomplete.
Note: To learn about another book from the same genre, also available in both French and English, check out my post from 2017, Kobane Calling.