Saturday, September 26, 2015

Graphic Syria: An interview with Riad Sattouf By Nadja Vancauwenberghe

Riad Sattouf's two tomes (The Arab of the Future I and II) were huge successes in France and undeniably the big hype at this year's Graphic Novel Day at the Literature Festival. Following many bestselling comics (like Handbook for a Virgin) and strips in French media including in Charlie Hebdo (The Secret Life of Young People), the cartoonist and filmmaker finally risked straight autobiography and revisited his childhood in Gaddafi's Libya and (Hafez) Assad's Syria in the 1980s. The son of a French-Breton mother and Syrian father, Sattouf was born in Paris but lived until age 11 (except for two years in Libya) in Ter Maaleh, a small village near Homs. The Arab follows Riad, an adorable little boy with delicate French manners and flowing blond locks, to the brutal, archaic world of his dad's native Syria – a remote village rife with violence against dogs, women and children, and where anti-Semitism is just another facet of the surrounding superstitious ignorance. Told without any political subtext but with humorous simplicity, The Arab displays Sattouf's trademark genius in expressing volumes through the sharp observation of the most mundane reality. Appearing in English next month (it's already been translated into 15 languages, including German), this must-read transcends political passions and refreshingly brings a Syrian chronicle down to eye-level – that of a small boy with a healthy cat's curiosity and an elephant's memory.
After Jeremie (No Sex in New York ), Pascal (Pascal Brutal) and even Esther (Esther's Notebooks), Riad is finally the hero of your books. Why now? It was something I had in mind for many years now. But the trigger was when I found myself helping part of my Syrian family come to France. It was a difficult process – and my idea was to describe what we had to go through with immigration authorities, etc. But then I thought it would make sense to tell the whole story – from the beginning.
Despite all his shortcomings, are you thankful to your dad for something?
Yes! See, in principle given his education level we should have been sent to a big city – Damascus or Aleppo – but he absolutely wanted to go back to the village where he grew up. So it was bizarre, almost surreal. We were put in a position to see and experience things we shouldn't have normally seen or experienced. I shouldn't have lived with farmers and gone to such a school. In Damascus I would have been sent to the International French School and hung out with the Syrian bourgeoisie. So I'm grateful he got me to see all that, to meet the people I met in that school, people who will never be given the chance to talk about their lives – and I'm glad I could do that in my book. It was great luck that I could witness that life, and... that I could get out of it! EXBERLINER Photo