'Arab Of The Future' Chronicles The Challenges Of A Cross-Cultural Childhood
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Riad Sattouf, is well known in France, in part for the cartoon strip he had in the magazine Charlie Hebdo from 2004 to 2014. He was rarely at the office. He just emailed his strip. And the strip didn't venture into political satire. Sattouf had already stopped working there when two jihadists killed nine of his colleagues. He's been writing a series of graphic memoirs which tell his story in cartoon form. The first volume, which was a bestseller in France, has just been translated in English. It tells the story of the first six years of his life growing up in Libya, Syria and France. His French Catholic mother met his Syrian, Sunni Muslim father when they were students at the Sorbonne University. After Sattouf was born, his father got a job teaching at a university in Libya. At the time, the father admired Libya's ruler, Muammar Gaddafi. After getting disillusioned with Gaddafi, the father moved the family to Syria, where they lived in a poor village near Homs, where the father grew up. The women wore hijabs, and men and women were segregated by gender.
The memoir describes the radical cultural shifts between France and the Middle East from the point of view of a child who didn't fit in either place. Sattouf's memoir is called "The Arab Of The Future: A Childhood In The Middle East, 1978-1984."
Riad Sattouf, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about your father moving the family to the village in Syria near Homs where he grew up, what do you know about how that area has been affected by the war in Syria?
RIAD SATTOUF: For me, of course, when I made this book, "The Arab Of The Future," the civil war in Syria was - had already begun. But the Syria I knew and the Syria that I am telling about in my book is very different from the modern Syria. I left Syria in the '90s, so I don't know this country anymore, for example. So now when I'm looking at what's happening, it's - I'm like anybody, you know. I'm just amazed when I see the places where I grew up under bombs and things like that, but that's what I can say.
GROSS: Do you still have family there?
SATTOUF: A lot of my family's - the Sattouf family is a big family with a lot of people that are in it. So I don't know everybody, so I don't know if there is some people there. But I have some family who - they moved from the country at the beginning of the civil war. And they went to Egypt and Jordania, like a lot of Syrian people.
GROSS: So let's talk about your story. Your father met your mother when they were students at Sorbonne University. You were born in France, but then your father moved the family to Libya, where he got a job at a university. Had he always intended to move back to an Arab country and teach there?
SATTOUF: I don't know, really, what was his plans. But my father - and what I'm telling in book - is my father was from very poor background, from a peasant family, for a small village near Homs in Syria. And he was the youngest of his family and the only one of his family who was allowed to go to school because he was the youngest. And he was an excellent student, and he had very good results. And he continued his scholarship in Syria. And when he became - in the college, he applied to continue his studies in several European university. And the only one who answered yes to him was France, was la Sorbonne. So he came there, and he became a doctor in history. But, for him, he was loving the concept of education and school. And he wanted to give back this - what he received from school to the Arab country. But I don't know if he had this plan for a long time (laughter) or not, but he was not interested in staying in Europe.
GROSS: Did your mother know that? Because the way you describe this story in your graphic memoir, he gets this job in Libya and then tells your mother that he applied for the job. And she had no idea. And that's a pretty radical move to make.
SATTOUF: Yeah, yeah. Of course, this is the story of my family because my mother was French. She was from Brittany, a small region in France. And she was thinking that my father could become somebody important because he was very bright. That's what I'm telling in my book. He was from a poor background, but he was a very successful student. So he had proposition to be a - to work at Oxford in England, and he refused. He preferred to go to Libya. So my father was convinced to have a destiny. I don't know. So he convinced my mother, too, and she followed him. She was a very, you know - a woman who stayed at home and took care of children. She was from another generation.
GROSS: But it sounds like he didn't think it was necessary to tell his wife that he was thinking of moving the family to another part of the world.
SATTOUF: (Laughter) Yeah, I think, yeah. My father had a paradox because he had a love for modernity and education. And he wanted the Arab world became independent. And he was for all the people to be able to go to school. And for - in other way, he was a very traditional background thinking. I don't know. He was thinking a wife should follow her husband. And, of course, he was like that with my mother because she accepted to marry him. So she had to follow him. It could be pretty strange today (laughter). It was like that at that time.
GROSS: Well, it wasn't that long ago. I mean, you're talking about 1978.
GROSS: It wasn't (laughter)...
SATTOUF: Ah, not so old (laughter).
GROSS: Well, it wasn't exactly the 1800s or anything.
GROSS: But there were parts about moving to Libya that sounded like a good deal until you got there, like everybody had a house. And you were going to be promised a house. But what your parents didn't realize until you moved there was that you were given a house, but any vacant house was considered available. And anyone could move into it. So one day when your family wasn't at home, it was considered unoccupied. And somebody else moved in. And so, like, you couldn't come back and reclaim it and explain, that was just a mistake?
SATTOUF: Yeah, it was like that when we arrived in Libya. My father had a great house offered to him to the university. And there was no locker on the room. And somebody of the family was supposed to stay forever in the house to keep the house habited. I don't know how to - it's very strange because Gaddafi - Muammar Gaddafi has make private property illegal. So it was illegal to have a house (laughter) at his name. So it's completely crazy, you know.
At that time in Libya, there was - Gaddafi - dictator of the place was always making laws that were like science fiction laws, you know. For example, one day, he decided that everybody should exchange his jobs. For example, a teacher exchanged his job with a farmer. And a farmer becomes a teacher in the university. And the teacher become the farmer in the farm. And it was completely crazy, you know, (laughter) society. I don't know how to say it differently. And my father realized that he would never be somebody in this country.
GROSS: Your father sounds like he had a very large, weird ego.
SATTOUF: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly. This is what my book is telling about because I was a child, and I was admiring my father. You know, it's very hard to tell to a child to not admire his father or his mother, for example. And I was admiring him, and he was saying horrible things every time. And it took me so many years before I realized the kind of person he was. But he was touching by some aspects and horrible in other aspects. And I think this is a good image of life. I don't know. I wanted to show this.
GROSS: So when your father realized that he was not going to rise in politics in Libya and that Gaddafi was a little crazy, he moved the family to Syria, to the village where he grew up. And it was a small village. Your father was the only one in his family who could read. There were no antibiotics in this village, like, when you got sick, no antibiotics to give you. Your father had expected to build a villa on his land, but his brother had sold the land, expecting...
GROSS: ...That your father would stay in Europe. And your mother was the only European there. And, at this time, you had long, blonde hair.
GROSS: So how were you treated? You must have looked so radically different. You and your mother must have looked so radically different than anybody there. And, I don't know, sounds like there wasn't television there, where they were exposed to people from other places.
SATTOUF: (Laughter) No, it was very, very strange experience because the village of my father, which is near city of Homs, had electricity and water, I think, 10 years before we arrived in the place. When my father was young, there was no water or no electricity. It was like in the Middle Age. I don't know (laughter). And it was very, very strange experience because me, as a child, it was normal, you know. I was thinking, OK, that's life. It's like that.
For my mother, it was very strange because she was following her husband. And she came in a village with very traditional Muslim life. All the people were, to gender, were strictly separated, women with women and men with men. And my mother accepted this. It was very strange.
We were seen as strangers, complete strangers. And I was blonde with big, curly hair (laughter). And all my cousins were brown-haired guy, and they knew that I was coming from France. And France was the ally of Israel. So they started to tell me I was a Jew. And you know Israeli people, for Syrian people, are the native enemy. I don't know if we can say that. There's nothing they hated more than the Israeli people and Jew people. So they told me that I was a Jew. (Mimicking teasing) Yeah, you're a Jew, a Jew, a Jew - all today. And I have to defend myself from being a Jew. It was very strange experience.
GROSS: Since you weren't Jewish, among...
GROSS: ...Other things, that's what made it strange. But what did it mean to you to be called a Jew? Did you know what a Jew was?
SATTOUF: No, absolutely not. I never - and none of my cousins knew what it was, you know. At that time, the Jew, for us, were like, you know, I don't know, strange creature living not so far from our village and trying to kill Syrian people by any means. And it was a real obsession, you know. I have kept my schoolbooks of that period, of the time. And you have text in it when you learn - we can learn to read in Arabic. And it's against Israel. It was a - I don't know how to tell - it was a national mission to make everybody hate Israel.
GROSS: Your father told you, the Jews are our enemies. They're occupying Palestine. They're the worst race in the world, them and the Americans, who are their biggest pals. So, I don't know, the anti-Semitism was reinforced by your own father.
SATTOUF: Yeah, of course, yeah. You know, my father was a pan-Arabist. He was - it was a political ID that was developed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was a Egyptian president and who - how to say - he was for a big nation of Arab countries. And he was a nationalist. And he was traumatized by the defeats of the Arab coalitions against Israel. So he was dreaming of having a revenge against Israel. So yeah, he was reinforcing the ideas, of course. He hated Israel.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is French cartoonist and filmmaker Riad Sattouf. He has a new graphic memoir called "The Arab Of The Future." And it's about his childhood in the Middle East. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Riad Sattouf. He's a French cartoonist and filmmaker. His new graphic memoir "The Arab Of The Future", is about the first six or seven years of his life, growing up the son of a French mother and Syrian father. They met at the Sorbonne University, then his father moved the family to Libya and then to Syria.
So you had spent summers in France with your mother's family. What were those summers in France like compared to the life you were used to in Syria?
SATTOUF: It was like, you know, arriving in a huge toy store. I don't know how to tell you - there was light everywhere, there was people everywhere, cars everywhere and there was - a lot of shops everywhere. At that time, in the '80s in Syria, there was nothing in the stores. You know, it was like a Soviet country. Syria was very close to the USSR at that time, so it was very difficult to find various food and - very difficult to find toys, it was nearly impossible in homes. So when we were arriving in France, it was like arriving in a very bright and rich country. I was loving that, you know, and it was very, very different.
GROSS: So your parents separated when you were 12 in 1990, and that will be part of what you talk about in a future volume of "The Arab of The Future." And then you moved back to France with your mother. Was there a big custody battle? Did your father try very hard to keep you and your brother with him?
SATTOUF: You will know the rest of the story and the rest of the volume - I will not tell you.
GROSS: You're turning your life into a soap opera.
SATTOUF: It's like...
GROSS: Tune in next time to see what happens to Riad Sattouf.
SATTOUF: It's like, you know, saying and what do you think - so Darth Vader is the father of Luke Skywalker. No, you don't want to know. You want to - I will not answer.
GROSS: OK, I won't try to pry it out of you. But, you know, it's - an interesting thing about your father is that he prided himself on being intellectual, and being a man of the future, an Arab of the future, but he seems so - the way you describe him, he seemed so petty and often wrong. Like, he was really happy when Suddam Hussein invaded Iran and he thought this war's going to be over really quickly. It lasted eight years, like, so many people on both sides were killed. He admired Gaddafi when he first moved to Libya - wrong about that. He thought that Satan hides in women, he hated Jews and hated Israel, and I just - I don't know how you reconcile in your own family the kind of intelligence that he obviously had. He was able to get from this, like, small village in Syria to study at the Sorbonne and then, you know, get university teaching positions in various places - to reconcile that, with his kind of pettiness and bigotry.
SATTOUF: Yeah, when I meet people in life, it's very - I think it's very often - to have strong opposition of, you know - I don't know, you - I know - person who - are married and they have affairs. You know, I know people who believe in God and that - cheat money to their friend - they stole money - to their friend. So it's very human to have - paradox and contrast and I wanted to - it's very difficult for me to reconcile them. Just - I wanted to show them to - that's my - that's what I like to do in my comics, you know? And it's very interesting as an - as a cartoonist, as a comic book author when it's about people who think they have a destiny because my father was convinced to have a destiny and he was really excessive in a lot of ways and it's human, I think, I don't know. It's - I just want to show how it was.
GROSS: Can you tell us if your father is still alive? Or - you saving that for a future volume?
SATTOUF: Oh, I will save it for a future - no, no, he's dead...
SATTOUF: I can tell you. But he - I will tell the rest the story.
GROSS: Would you - felt - would you have felt unable to write this if your father was still alive?
SATTOUF: Not really because - no. It's easy maybe to say that today, but I don't think - no.
GROSS: Can you tell us how he died?
SATTOUF: No, I won't tell you.
GROSS: That is so odd. OK, because it's not fiction like Star Wars, it's your life. But...
SATTOUF: I have all other volumes - if I tell everything now...
GROSS: I know, I understand. I understand, OK, OK, fair enough.
Oh well. My guest is French cartoonist Riad Sattouf, his graphic memoir "The Arab Of The Future" has just been published in English. We'll talk more after we take a short break, and we'll hear from Brie Larson who stars in the new film "Room" and is also known for her roles in "Train Wreck", "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" and the "United States Of Tara." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with French cartoonist Riad Sattouf. The first in his series of graphic memoirs - memoirs in cartoon form - has just been published in English. It was a bestseller in France. It's called "The Arab Of The Future," and it covers the first 6 years of his life - 1978 to 1984. Sattouf was born in France to a French mother and Syrian father. When Sattouf was 2, his father - excuse me - his father moved the family to Libya where he'd gotten a teaching job. Then Sattouf's father moved the family to the poor Syrian village where he'd grown up, near Homs.
When you moved back to France, did you have a hard time fitting in because, you know, your father is Syrian, although, you had blonde hair when you were young - I think it got darker as you got older? So you might've been considered Arab when you came to France and might've been considered the outsider in the part of France that you were in - making you always an outsider.
SATTOUF: Yeah, maybe a little. Yes, of course. When I was in Syria, I was blonde and everybody was thinking I was so beautiful, you know, I was like a baby Brigitte Bardot.
SATTOUF: All the women wanted to have me in their arms and I was thinking life will always be like that, you know, with women. It was - (laughter) I was thinking like that. And when I came back to France, I became a teenager and my blonde hair disappeared and my hair became curly and brown. I had a lot of acne - how do you say acne?
SATTOUF: You know, zits, yeah? And I was so ugly, you know, I was disgusting and (laugher) I discovered - and my name in French is - how do you say it - is ridiculous a little.
GROSS: It's a little obscene, I think you can't say it. (Laughter).
SATTOUF: It's obscene, yeah. For example, you can make a joke - Riad Sattouf in French - you can make a joke that means - I don't know if I can say it on the radio.
GROSS: You can't, you can't. If I understand correctly, your name, when said quickly and slightly misunderstood in French, would translate to - I laughed at your female woman parts.
GROSS: And, you know, I laughed at your genitalia. And we can't - it's a - but it's a slang expression for it, which we cannot use on the air.
SATTOUF: This is my name, you know. And when we were in classroom and everybody was - and the teacher was saying the name of the students, there was, you know - Francois Martin(ph) - I'm here - Michel Martinez (ph) - I'm here - I laughed about your [expletive] - I'm here and, you know, everybody was laughing about me. And OK, I was an outsider. That's true.
SATTOUF: It was difficult to have a social life at the time.
GROSS: You're a father now - I think your child is 1?
SATTOUF: Yes. (Laughter).
GROSS: So because you're reliving your own childhood writing your autobiographical series, is that making you think a lot about what kind of father you want to be, and making you really wonder how your child is experiencing the world?
SATTOUF: Yes. Maybe. Yeah, yeah. It's very strange because my boy, yeah, he is - he will have 2 years - and I have memories of my own 2 years. So I'm seeing him today and I say, oh, I remember when I was his age. And he was seeing things and it's very interesting and funny experience, yeah. But - I don't know - I'm - I think I'm a cool father. (Laugher). You know, I teach him guitar, and his first word is guitar.
SATTOUF: So I'm a cool father, you know.
GROSS: I don't want to be giving you advice or anything, but I think it's time to start toughening him and making sure he's a man. (Laughter).
SATTOUF: Yes, exactly. I will buy him guns. (Laughter).
SATTOUF: I'll show him some football match and make him a real man.
GROSS: So how did growing up in two different worlds leave you feeling about religion, about patriotism, about nationalism?
SATTOUF: It's very difficult, too, you know, because I hate nationalism. For example, you know, it's very difficult for me to be proud of being from Syrian origin, of French origin - I don't know - it's - I cannot reconciliate(ph) the both of them. So I don't know. I think everybody should be equal, you know? I feel myself much more like a comic book author - it's my first nationality. You know, I know it's maybe, like, a little bit stupid to say that. But I have much more in common with a Japanese guy who draws Manga than with people from my neighborhood in France, you know? So I don't like patriotism and nationality - nationalism.
GROSS: How did you get interested in cartooning growing up in the Syrian village? How did you even see comic books?
SATTOUF: Oh, it's because my French grandmother was sending me, from France, comics of (speaking French). I don't know - in English it's Tintin. (Indiscernible) is the English. Maybe it's Tintin?
GROSS: Tintin, I think of Americans say. Yeah.
SATTOUF: And I was only reading that. I wasn't - I didn't realize it was made by a human, you know? It was like...
GROSS: Who'd you think made it?
SATTOUF: It was like - it was incredible to read things like that coming - and I realized at 10-years-old, it was made by somebody. And I said, oh, I want to do that - I want to make the same things. That's - I was loving drawing, you know - and maybe that's also what saved me is that my mother and my father, they were thinking that I was a genius in drawing, you know. Those are the words they were always telling me - you are a genius, look at the drawings you are doing. And I was not a genius, you know, I was drawing like everybody else. But I was thinking I was a genius so I was very self-confident in my drawing abilities at that time.
GROSS: So one more question, you must've grown up with so much insecurity - moving from county to country, from culture to culture. Moving into a home in Libya and having somebody else move in because the family wasn't home that day. I mean, there was so - you know, being beaten up, you know, and called a Jew when you were in Syria before you even knew what a Jew was - not that that would've made it any better. (Laughter). But so - like, how did you overcome the kind of insecurity that must've been such an ongoing part of your early childhood?
SATTOUF: Oh, it's very difficult question - maybe by trying to love about it. I don't know. You know, for example, in Syria, I was treated as a Jew. And when I came back to France - I don't know if my voice is like that English - but in French, I have, you know, like a girly voice, you know? I speak like that and na, na, na. And everybody, when I was at school, they were telling me, hey, you're a gay? Hey you, gay. And so I grew up with that, and, you know, I was always thinking that if I had been a Jew, for example, or a gay man, I would have suffered a nightmare, you know, living like this. So I had a lot of affection with gay people and Jewish people, you know. I don't know how to say that - is that - decided the way that I'm - decided to become a cartoonist, you know, when everybody starts to hate somebody for - because of his something that a lot of people don't like. I want to be by the side of the guy who is, you know, harassed by the other, you know. (Laughter). This is what I can answer.
GROSS: Well, it's really been great to talk with you in spite of the fact that you won't tell me about your future.
GROSS: But I wish you good luck and I thank you very much for talking with us.
SATTOUF: Thank you very much, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: And I look forward to volume two. (Laughter).
SATTOUF: Thank you.
GROSS: Riad Sattouf's new graphic memoir is called "The Arab Of The Future." We'll be joined by Brie Larson, who stars in the new movie "Room," and played Amy Schumer's sister in "Trainwreck," after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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