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Former 'Charlie Hebdo' Cartoonist Riad Sattouf Discusses His Graphic Memoir ‘The Arab of the Future’

We met up with the best-selling French-Syrian artist in New York to talk over beer and olives about his internationally celebrated book.
December 2, 2015, 8:30pm

Photo by Olivier Marty/Courtesy of Henry Holt and Metropolitan Books

Riad Sattouf is a French-Syrian cartoonist and movie director who lives in Paris. The first volume of his graphic memoir, The Arab of the Future, was published in English this fall. A best-seller in France, the book covers the peripatetic existence imposed upon the Sattouf family between 1978 and 1982 by Riad's father, Abdel-Razak, a PhD history professor and devotee of pan-Arabism, who dragged his wife and children from Paris to Tripoli to his hometown, Ter Ma'aleh, a small Syrian village north of Homs.

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In Muammar Gaddafi's Libya, laws against private property meant that you couldn't put a lock on your door, so when the Sattoufs went out together one day, another family moved in to their house. In Hafez al-Assad's Syria, Riad was jeered by his cousins as a yehudi—the Arabic term for Jew—on account of his then-long blonde hair; he watched children shit on the street, piss in holes otherwise employed in the dispensing of drinking water, and murder a puppy for fun.

To those who insist that incisive proclamations and penetrating insights about now be embedded in any work whose subject matter crosses paths with Syria and Libya at any time in their histories, The Arab of the Future will be a disappointment. No universal truths about autocracy, the Middle East, or radical Islam are revealed in what is essentially a very personal story of an extremely chaotic family. The book, whose title pokes fun at Abdel-Razak's pan-Arabist obsessions, shows the hypocrisy behind one man's understanding of that failed political ideology, makes tangible the absurdity of living under propaganda-mad dictators, and it humanizes, for better or worse, certain segments of very poor Muslim populations in two specific parts of the Middle East. But that's about as far as its politics, or those of its creator, are willing to go.

When we spoke in New York in early November—before the attacks in Paris on the 13th—Sattouf was less interested in analyzing international relations than he was in discussing Donald Trump's hair, which wouldn't leave whatever news channel was on the TV above us. As I walked him back to Grand Central after the interview, we swapped pictures of our kids and talked about the costs of raising families in our respective large cities. After November 13th, he quietly ignored my repeated attempts to ask about what had happened; he only let me know that he and his family were OK.

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We met in the lobby of the Iroquois Hotel. I suggested that we grab a drink and steal space in a quiet little nook up front. He looked in at the empty restaurant and said, "Why don't we go sit there, at the bar—like a couple of alcoholics."

VICE: I read that you may make up answers occasionally in interviews.
Riad Sattouf: I "make up"? What is "make up"?

Invent, lie…
Not really. I don't invent things, I don't think. Sometimes I refuse to answer, because people ask me questions, wanting to know the rest of the story in The Arab of the Future. And I don't want to tell. So I don't especially invent things, I just refuse to answer and make jokes instead.

The picture on the inside cover is of you as a little blonde child nervously holding a pistol. Is there any particular reason you chose it?
When I was young, I was obsessed with guns.

Do you know why?
No. I think, you are a boy—you have to like guns. And I liked them very much. I had a lot of plastic guns. There was always a gun with me. Like I had to protect myself from something.

There's a scene in the book in Syria in which you're playing war with your cousins, and they make you play with "the Jews" figures, which are insane. Did you keep any of those?
No, and you know, I tried to find them… I went on eBay and elsewhere, and I haven't been able to find any. And a guy wrote me, a collector of toy soldiers, and he said, "I'm really interested in your idea of those toy soldiers, and I haven't seen them anywhere—did you invent it?" And so I was thinking, I hope I didn't invent them. But in my mind, I don't think so. I think they were true.

All comics reprinted with permission from Metropolitan Books

I want to ask you more about invention, because you were, what, in the first volume? Two to four years old? So I'm reading this thinking, I don't remember hardly anything before I was maybe five.
I think I have a good memory, a visual memory. It's not sound memory—I don't remember the talking, but I remember the images well. I remember images from before what I'm telling in the book. I remember when I couldn't walk, and I was sitting in a chair, and a giant was giving me things to eat, like a giant finger. And I remember a white cat that my grandmother had; he was a very mean cat. Everybody was talking about how mean he was, and he was jumping everywhere and harassing people, and he died in 19… 80… no, he died in 1979. So I was one year old.

You use one dominant color to shade each country—yellow for Libya, blue for France, and rose for Syria. What's the particular reason that you chose each one?
When I started to remember, I realized that the different places had colors in my memory. For example, in Libya there was a lot of sand everywhere. It was very hot and yellow. In France, it was in Brittany, so it was the sea. In Syria, it was the red of the soil. Clay. If you stay in a room that is red for one hour, and then you go out, the world will seem green. You invert the dominant colors. And I wanted that to happen with the scenery. That when you changed from one country to the other, you would feel disoriented.

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The way that you portray your mother in this book, she's extremely passive. You know, your father comes home in Paris one day and says, "Hey, by the way, I actually got a job in Libya and we're moving there." And she just goes along with it. Or, "Hey, let's move to a tiny village in Syria where you'll be the only woman not wearing a hijab and you'll have to eat in a separate room from the men and only get to eat our scraps." No protest. And yet you also show her as really smart, with strong opinions and a good sense of humor. But it seems like she kind of let your dad—I don't want to say walk all over her—but he just kind of led the way, and she followed.
Yeah. She was like that. At that time, she had stopped her studies and was taking care of her children. She was a housewife. And she was hoping that her husband would become somebody important. Because my father was a bright man in Libya and Syria. He was a doctor in France; very few people could say the same thing. So she was waiting for him to become somebody important, and she supported him. She was waiting, because he was always saying, "We will be rich, I will buy a Mercedes, I will have a villa—a huge villa."

He seems like he was kind of obsessed with power, the way that he sort of idolized Gaddafi and Assad.
He was in love with education and school, and he wanted the Arab world to become independent from US influence and Russian influence. He wanted to build a huge Arab nation. It was pan-Arabism, you know. But on the other side, he was not for democracy, he was not for liberty. He thought that if we let Arabs choose their leaders, they would choose a religious, stupid leader, and he wanted to… he was dreaming of staging a coup and executing everybody and becoming the chief. He was fascinated with power.

So what did he think education was going to do if he didn't actually believe in any of these people?
I don't know. [Laughs] This is a paradox.

Your father seems possessed of similar contradictions when it came to religion. He didn't practice his religion, and believed that education would free Arabic people from the constraints of dogma. But at the same time, having been raised as a Sunni in a small Sunni community, he hated Shias. And, of course, he wasn't that into Jews either.
Yeah, he saw himself as a liberal. So he thought that religion was keeping people in the dark, but at the same time, he thought that the devil was real and magic was real and jinn were waiting around the corner. I think that his childhood, which I tell a bit about in the first book, was full of terror. And I think—because in his village they had no electricity, no water at that time—it was a very tough life. So it was a very intense reaction to reality, like if something unusual happened, we don't know what it is—it's magic.

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Has your mom read this book?
Yeah.

Did she tell you how she felt about the way that you portrayed her?
[Pauses] Yeah, she told me… [ laughs]

All right, fair enough. Well, let's turn to you, and the young version of you in The Arab of the Future. The story is rendered in what seems to be a purposefully childlike way—that you're not looking back on these events as an adult filtering them through age and experience as much as you are almost trying to relive them as a child.
Yeah. It was very important to show the point of view of a child on the situation. Without judgment. And to put the reader in the position of a child, and to let him judge by himself. Sometimes there are readers who tell me, "Oh my god, your father, he's so awful. He's so mean. I hate him. How can you live with him?" And then a guy after comes and says, "Your father, he's very touching. Very touching with his mistakes and everything." And I like that. I think it's better—I'm not sure exactly how to say it—to leave the story inside.

"Writers from Arabic countries—I don't want to speak generally—but a large portion of the people who are speaking about these countries, who are 'known' as 'writers' in Europe, are from rich families. They are from the upper class of the Arab world. But I lived and experienced life with children and young people from a social class that rarely has its stories told."

I know that among other things people have said about this book is that your portrayals of your father and his family are somehow comments on Arabic people more generally. Is that fair to say?
No, of course not. And that's why I chose the title The Arab of the Future. Because it's, uh, a ridiculous title, you know? There is no meaning; it's meant to reinforce the fact that I'm speaking about a point of view of one family. But I did have a lot of reactions from other people, from Algeria, from Morocco, and they said, "Oh, my family was like that." People can recognize themselves inside them. I'm sure some American people can recognize their father in the guy who likes guns.

I think that the specificity of my book is that my father was supposed to be from the upper class, because he was a teacher, but he wanted to live with his family in his village where there was a very low class. Writers from Arabic countries—I don't want to speak generally—but a large portion of the people who are speaking about these countries, who are "known" as "writers" in Europe, are from rich families. They are from the upper class of the Arab world. But I lived and experienced life with children and young people from a social class that rarely has its stories told. I think that to show the way we were living in this village, it's very important, compared to a lot of ways we see the Arab world. You know, when you see, like a girl from a monarchy buying a huge plane, putting Emirates on it… It's not only billionaires.

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Or on another token, it's not just ISIS or rebel fighters.
Yeah, there are normal people.

So you worked for Charlie Hebdo, or did you just publish your cartoon there?
No, Charlie Hebdo, I used to work there, for eight years. In 2003, Cabu, one of the cartoonists who worked there [who was killed during the massacre in January], offered me a job. And he was one of my idols; he was the idol of most French cartoonists. Because when we were children, he appeared on a TV show where he helped children learn how to draw. And I'm still using the things I learned with him in my comics. So in 2003, he offered me a job at the paper, but I don't know how to draw political cartoons. But I loved Cabu, so I told him yes, but that I didn't want to make those kinds of drawings. So he said, "Do something else. You want to make a comic?" And I suggested a comic series called "The Secret Life of the Young." They're scenes I would see on the subway, or the street, and I drew them in my notebook. People having arguments, mothers speaking to their children in bad ways or telling them strange things. So I published this comic strip for eight years, but I wasn't a part of the newspaper. I sent my strip by email.

So you didn't go to editorial meetings?
No, never. Nobody ever asked me my ideas about anything. My work was separated from the news. And then after eight years of doing it, I found it quite depressing, always seeing horrible things on the street. I said I wanted to stop, and I left the newspaper—it was six months before the attack.

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Has The Arab of the Future, which was a bestseller in France, changed your public profile at home?
Yeah, it's completely different.Before I published Arab of the Future, I had comics fans, like indie fans. After Arab of the Future, I had moms. Dads. Moms and people who were telling me, "I'm sorry this is the first comic I read; I don't read comics but I love it." It's very new.

Do you like that?
Yeah, I love it. I like when people from real life like my comics. For 15 years, I was drawing comics, and sometimes you would say, "Why am I doing all this? Nobody likes my comics. I'm alone at my table and nobody is here to get my picture. I'm here, and there is always a guy who comes and looks at my comic and says, 'I like superheroes,' and he goes away." So when you could reach people who are not interested in comics, but they like the story, I'm very happy.

After you had moved to France and your blonde hair turned dark, did you get made fun of again? Like when you were in Syria, and they were calling you yehudi, did you get the dirty Arab or something in France?
Of course. When I arrived in France my hair started to turn brown and curly, and I had zits, and I became ugly. And—I don't know if in English it's the same—but in French, I have a girly voice. So when I was younger, all the guys would say, "Hey you're gay," "Hey faggot."

So people were telling me I was a Jew in Syria, and in France they were telling me what a faggot I was. Gay till I was, I don't know, 16 or 18 years old. And—I've said this elsewhere, but it's very true—because I was thinking, I'm not Jewish. I'm not Jewish. But if I had been Jewish, or if I had been gay, it's incredible how life would have been for me. Each time someone said to me, "Hey gay, fuck you," if I really loved men, I would have gone crazy. So I became very sensitive to all those questions of people who are hated by a mass who don't know why. I have a lot of affection for the outsider, the excluded person.

Follow Aidan on Twitter.

The Arab of the Future is available now from Metropolitan Books.