RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Arab Spring and it's harsh aftermath have a precedent in the Arab world. Decades ago, intellectuals especially believed Pan-Arabism would bring prosperity and opportunity. The graphic memoir "The Arab Of The Future" is an engrossing and humorous glimpse into the time after that dream died seen through the eyes of a child. The first in a trilogy, the memoir was a best-seller in France and is now out in the U.S. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley recently sat down with cartoonist Riad Sattouf.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I meet Sattouf at his Paris publisher with a copy of the English edition of his book under my arm. It's his first glimpse of it.
RIAD SATTOUF: I love it.
SATTOUF: It's - for me it's a dream to have a book in English. You know, it's - I'm very happy.
BEARDSLEY: Sattouf, who used to draw for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, has long been captivated with the secret world of young people. In "The Arab Of The Future," he transports readers back to his own childhood. Through simple expressive drawings and droll text, Sattouf tells his story, that of a half-French, half-Syrian boy growing up in the Middle East of the late '70s and '80s. It begins as his Syrian father finishes up his doctorate in France. Sattouf says his father could have taught anywhere.
SATTOUF: He preferred to go to Libya and work for Gadhafi than go to Oxford because he was obsessed by the education of the Arab world.
BEARDSLEY: Full of enthusiasm and grandiose Pan-Arabist visions, Sattouf's father drags the family along with him. Through tiny Riad's eyes, the reader gets a rare and captivating glimpse into a corrupt, cruel and very weird world.
SATTOUF: And I wanted to show in the book this fascination I had for my father because I was thinking he was strong, and he was brilliant, and he was... And with my grown-up view now, show how horrible certain of his views and thinking were and how I was fascinated by horrible things without realizing they were horrible.
BEARDSLEY: When the family arrives in Tripoli in 1978, Libya is run according to the whims of Moammar Gadhafi and his little green book. At first, it appears utopian. Everyone gets a free house but without a key. When the Sattouf family goes on a short walk after arriving, they return to find their luggage outside.
SATTOUF: And in our house there was a family who had already took the house. So my father said, hey, it's our house. And the guys told us, no, there is no private property in Libya. You were not in the house. We have the authorization to take empty house for our family.
BEARDSLEY: Eventually, Gadhafi's Libya becomes too much to bear, and the family heads to Syria. Little Riad, blonde and not fully Arabic-speaking, must find his way in the rough-and-tumble world of Syrian peasant children. Through Riad's simple childhood observations, Sattouf paints a picture of Syrian society of the day. Playing toy soldiers, he remembers the plastic Syrian combatants were molded into brave and noble poses while the enemy Jews were cowardly and duplicitous.
SATTOUF: And all my cousins were saying, oh, he's - he's surrendering, look. No, he's got a knife because you will come, and when you will surrender, he will stab you. It was, you know, to put in the mind of children that you have to stay focused on your enemy until forever.
BEARDSLEY: Sattouf says the idea for his memoir arose from his frustration over French bureaucracy while trying to bring Syrian family members to France. But then he decided he had to start his tale from the very beginning. So does the successful French cartoonist feel Syrian?
SATTOUF: Before feeling myself French or Syrian, I feel myself like a cartoonist.
BEARDSLEY: The second volume of his work will come out in English next fall. And Sattouf says he's currently working on the third volume of his "Arab Of The Future" trilogy. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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