The Arab of the Future 4: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1987-1992

Writer & Artist: Riad Sattouf
Publisher: Metropolitan Books
List Price: $30.00

Familial tensions reach a breaking point and Clementine’s worst nightmare materializes in the fourth volume of Riad Sattouf’s phenomenal award-winning graphic memoir

At the conclusion of the third volume, Sattouf’s mother Clementine and the boys move back to France, leaving his father Abdel behind to work as a professor in Saudi Arabia while plotting his next move to earn wealth and respect. Young Riad is now 10 years old and living a mostly idyllic life in the countryside near his maternal grandparents. However, Abdel’s sporadic visits cause palpable tension. His trek to Mecca has turned him into a racist and foul-mouthed Muslim fundamentalist who criticizes Clementine’s western ways and puts pressure on Sattouf to follow the Muslim path. 

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When the family travels to Syria to see Abdel’s ailing mother, Sattouf, who has forgotten his Arabic, is bullied and called a Jew by the local boys, which include his cousins. His female cousin awakens sexual feelings. And Abdel’s growing disdain of the West and his pro-Iraqi sentiment cause a rift in his relationship with Clementine. Sattouf spends his adolescence in France with a growing awareness of body image, art, computers and girls. But Abdel’s return once again shatters the calm and changes their lives forever.

Sattouf’s cartoony drawings in The Arab of the Future 4 belie a greater conflict at play between his two cultural identities. The soothing influence of Sattouf’s life in France, drawn in blue, alternates with the shorter, and more turbulent Syrian existence, which he creates in pink. Red dream sequences pepper the narrative, often ending disturbingly in a tug-of-war between his Western and Muslim identities. 

In one dream sequence, Sattouf imagines his cousin as his wife, writing and drawing in a 24-panel sequence across two pages that emphasizes the duality of his identity: “A Syrian woman would follow me anywhere/A Syrian woman would always be outraged by people’s free and easy morals/She wouldn’t be able to stand the sound of church bells/She would refuse to buy meat at the butcher’s/I would try to convince her to live like a Frenchwoman, to remove the veil.”

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Despite the tension, there are those humorous, tender and even painful experiences of adolescence. Sattouf gets a Tom Cruise-modeled haircut that turns out to look more like Elvis. His flowing blond hair transitions to curly brown and acne takes over his face. Sattouf impresses the girls with his budding artistic skills only to be rejected by the same girls when he gifts a drawing to his mother that he promised to a classmate. 

Brilliant, sensational and heartbreaking, The Arab of the Future 4 hits all the high and low notes without skipping a beat, setting up a thrilling conclusion to the series. 

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