Sunday April 02, 2017

Riad Sattouf captures his childhood in full colour

The Arab of the Future 2 deals primarily with Sattouf's experiences going to school in a small village near Homs, Syria.

The Arab of the Future 2 deals primarily with Sattouf's experiences going to school in a small village near Homs, Syria. (Olivier Marty/Henry Holt and Co.)

Listen to Full Episode 51:48

Riad Sattouf was born in Paris in 1978 to a French mother and a Syrian father. He grew up in Libya and Syria, before moving with his mother and brother to Brittany, France, when he was a teenager.

The Syrian-French cartoonist and filmmaker's graphic memoir series, The Arab of the Future, paints a vivid portrait of his formative years growing up in the shadow of his father — a paradoxical man who was an advocate of pan-Arabism and a staunch admirer of brutal dictators, yet a firm believer in shaping a modern and educated Arab world.

Told through the eyes of a wide-eyed child, the memoirs are full of Sattouf's sharp observations about learning to grapple with assimilation and prejudice in various settings, including his father's village in a country that has since been ravaged by war and destruction. 

While The Arab of the Future marked his English-language debut, Sattouf was already a highly successful cartoonist in France. From the time he was twenty, he was publishing series of comics and contributing to newspapers and magazines, such as — for almost a decade — Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly that suffered a devastating terrorist attack in 2015, in which twelve people were killed.  

Riad Sattouf discussed his work with Eleanor Wachtel from the CBC's Paris studio. 

Sharing untold stories

We were in this small village in Syria because my father wanted to go back and live in his peasant village. He had the ability to live in the big city and he preferred to return to his poor village. He wanted me to grow up with kids from the very, very low class of society. Those people, they never grow up and tell their story. Because very often when you see an intellectual or an artist from the Middle East, if you look at their background you will find that they are generally from a very rich family. It's quite unusual to see somebody who is from a peasant farm or family who becomes a movie director or writer or something like that. I had a chance to grow up with a very low class of society of poor Muslim children, and we were living in very violent, rural conditions. I think it's interesting to tell this kind of point of view because I had never read it anywhere.

Dark side of humanity

When I was a child in Syria, the children told me, "You're a Jew. Your mother is a Jew" [which was not the case]. And when I came to France after that, as a teen people would tell me, "You're gay. Your way of speaking, you speak like a lady."  I love gays and Jews because I think they are my people. You know, everybody is yelling at you and refusing your origin. If I had actually been gay and hearing all those insults all day, I think I would have been crazy. You arrive in a place, everybody hates you for a reason and you don't even know why. I think it was helpful for me to experience the dark side of humanity. That racism and the hatred of difference is everywhere on earth. It's darkly funny to realize that very young.

Colours of his childhood

When I started to have memories and travel in my head to my past, I realized that Libya was very sunny and very, very hot. I decided to put it yellow. And after that, I realized that France was the sea of Brittany, grey clouds, so I decided to put it blue. And Syria, it was the red of the soil. I had this memory of red soil so I decided to put it pink. It was my idea to produce a physical sensation of travelling. Like the world is not exactly the same; it's the same but it's elsewhere. You change the ambience. You change the place. I wanted to make my reader experience physically what I was experiencing at that time. 

Riad Sattouf's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the broadcast interview: "Lailak" composed and performed by Nabil Hilaneh.