‘The Arab of the Future,’ by Riad Sattouf

Laila Lalami in The New York Times:

Lalami-ALT02-master675Fifty years ago, the Arab world was seized by a new hope. Whether in Cairo or Casablanca, Damascus or Tripoli, the hope was the same — that through higher education, young people would lift their developing nations into an era of peace and modernity. One of these young people was a Syrian scholarship student named Abdel-Razak Sattouf, a firm believer in Pan-Arabism and its promise of a unified, prosperous region. His journey from cheerful liberal to quiet authoritarian is the subject of “The Arab of the Future,” a graphic memoir by his son, the comic artist and filmmaker Riad Sattouf.Shortly after arriving in Paris to complete a doctorate in history at the Sorbonne, Abdel-Razak falls in love with a Frenchwoman, Clémentine, and with the country itself. (“France is wonderful! ­People can do whatever they want here! They even pay you to be a student!”) When he’s not studying, he spends his time listening to Radio Monte Carlo, from which he receives news of the Arab defeat in the 1973 war against Israel. In one of many such contradictions, Abdel-Razak seethes with frustration at the failures of the Arab forces, even though he himself has avoided conscription into the Syrian Army by choosing to study abroad.

Abdel-Razak successfully defends his doctoral dissertation, and Clémentine, now his wife, gives birth to Riad. This should be a happy time for the young scholar, but instead he complains that he has received only a cum laude and that offers of employment arrive in the form of letters misspelling his name. Therein lies Abdel-Razak’s fatal flaw: He is unable to cope with the fact that his self-perception doesn’t match the way others perceive him. This, at least in part, explains why he leaps at the offer of a teaching post in Libya.

More here.