I MET RIAD SATTOUF at the rooftop of the Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where the early evening buzz of people floating about and the helicopters overhead reminded him of exactly how he had always imagined Los Angeles — like in one of Michael Mann’s films. Sattouf was in Los Angeles to speak at ALOUD (a series of conversations, readings, and performances at the downtown Central Library) to promote the second volume of his critically acclaimed graphic memoir, The Arab of the Future, a best seller in France. In Volume I, his father Abdel-Razak, a pan-Arabist with dreams of a different life, moves his family from France to the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab State, and then to his ancestral village, Ter Maaleh, near Homs, Syria. Writing from the perspective of his childhood self, Sattouf shows the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of the forces that shape his family and the worlds they inhabit. He depicts his sense of dislocation and the differences between his various homes through the use of vivid, sensual colors, tinting each country’s landscape with the colors of its national flag. Volume II focuses on his family’s time in Ter Maaleh during the reign of Hafez al-Assad in the mid-1980s. Riad struggles with adolescence; he’s taunted as a “filthy Jew” at school, because of how he looks, and generally feels out of place in the country’s increasingly religious and nationalist atmosphere. Sattouf displays his skills as a master cartoonist — he narrates and draws with indelible tenderness, humor, nuance, and honesty. Alison Bechdel has called the work “beautiful, funny, and important,” and Zadie Smith recently commented that she “tore through” both volumes. It’s no wonder that these stories are so engrossing; Sattouf says these were the books he wanted to write before he died. There is urgency and fearlessness in his storytelling.
It may come as some surprise that Sattouf is a private person. He doesn’t like to speak about his life past the age of eight. “Nothing after,” he told me, laughing. His laughter is infectious and effortless. Some of what is most endearing about young Riad is easily discernible in the artist today; he is full of curiosity, quirky humor, and dogged honesty. (“I love meeting people who love my work,” he laughed, “and I hate meeting people who hate my work. I never meet them.”) The subject matter he takes on as a cartoonist (formerly as a columnist for Charlie Hebdo) and a director (The French Kissers and Jacky in the Women’s Kingdom) ranges from sex to nationalism to the danger of clinging to fixed identities. He touched on all of them during our talk.
LEAH MIRAKHOR: When you sit down and make a page, what does the process look like?
RIAD SATTOUF: I draw a comic page, not immediately, but after a long process. I think about the book for months. I stay in front of the TV. I watch the wall. It’s in my mind. And then one day I draw a storyboard on the page, with the drawing and text all together. [He draws an example for me in my notebook.] And then I redraw, redraw, and redraw. And the whole book is storyboarded.
You see the whole book?
Yes, yes. But I make a lot of changes when in the final pages. For example, when I make final pages, I might add a panel; there is a lot of improvisation. I make the whole storyboard, all 160 pages. A few friends that are very tough with me, who are also comic artists — they read it and they tell me what they think about it. Also, my publisher gives me feedback. But I am very good, so it is always perfect. [Laughs.] Actually, they tell me nothing. They try to say, “Oh, the nose, I’m not so sure, it’s not good.” And I say, “Ah, fuck you!” [Laughs.] They give me good advice. They say things like, “Maybe the first part is too long.” The first volume was like that. I always make my friends read.
Do you read other comics when drawing and writing?
Yes, in a kind of manic way. I don’t want to read modern comics, comics that are made today. I take care not to read too many contemporary comics, because I’m afraid it will influence me. Or it will complex me in a way. I see someone doing something great and I will say, “Oh, my god, I am shit — what am I doing?” So I prefer not to read them. Sometimes, when it appears to be incredible, I will read it — but I’m very afraid of reading modern comics. I read only old things and things I liked when I was young. For example, for the third volume, I was always reading Tintin.
You’ve loved Tintin for a long time.
Yes, I kept reading the volumes that I had with me when I was in Syria. For the second volume, I was reading a manga called Showa: A History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki.
Is it true that you decided to begin your memoir after the Syrian uprising?
Yes, exactly. Because I had to help a part of my family still living in Homs. They wanted to come to France and were denied visas. So I had to go to the French administration and meet with people, incredible people, and I wanted to show how stupid they could be. But to be interesting, I decided I should tell the story from the beginning.
So there was almost a practical reason?
Yes, exactly. And also, because I’ve made two movies. My first movie in France was a huge success — French Kissers. And after this movie, I made another movie, Jacky in the Kingdom of Women. It was a complete failure. And after that, I had no more friends. My phone was no longer ringing. [Laughs.] It was incredible. So I told myself, “Okay, I have no more friends, my life is over, maybe everything is over for me.” And I asked myself, “What would you do before dying?” And I said I would write this story about my family and my childhood, and I started to make this book. So thanks, Jacky! [Laughs.]
And you had been working in comics for a long time before wanting to make this.
Yes. I had the project of The Arab of the Future in my mind for a very long time, but I didn’t want to do it. I was maybe too proud — I didn’t want to be the guy with Syrian origins who immediately makes a book on that and becomes “The Arab” of the comic book world. So I made a lot of comics and movies, and people were asking me, “Oh, what’s your origin?” And I would say, “I am half-Syrian” — but it wasn’t the main interest of the thing, the work. So maybe because I’ll be 40 years old in two years, I decided to tell the story now. I felt like it was a good time for me to tell it.
Can you talk a little about your other comics, Esther’s Notebooks, The Secret Life of Youth, or Pascal Brutal?
Ten years ago I had a proposition to work at Charlie Hebdo, and I told them that I was not able to make political cartoons, because I don’t really like that. You know, like drawing Barack Obama playing golf — I’m not so good at that. They said, “Well, do anything you want.” And I was always taking the subway to go from my home to my studio, always seeing incredible scenes in the subway and hearing conversations, and I decided to make a comic about those situations, and that’s how it happened. I’d be sitting next to a child with his mother, watching them, and I decided to show those interactions. I had an audience, and once these comics were published in volumes, more people read them.
In France, The Arab of the Future has been compared to Satrapi’s Persepolis. It seems mostly because they are stories by contemporary cartoonists with Middle Eastern parentage. And yet, they are remarkably different, aesthetically and narratively. What do you make of this?
Of course, when Marjane Satrapi made her book 15 years ago, I was just thinking, “I will have to wait 15 years to make mine.” But also, the comparison isn’t so evident, because the Persian world is completely different. It’s the Norway of the Muslim world. [Laughs.]
Well, and she also comes from a very different kind of family.
Exactly. For me, it wasn’t so obvious. For the French people, it was, “Oh, the mysteries of the people from the Arab world, the other side of the Mediterranean.” Her books are great. But I don’t see many similarities. My story is very different. Of course, at the beginning, we are children, but …
I wondered if instead you saw any connections to another contemporary comic — Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which is, among many things, about the artist’s relationship with her father.
I read her book after I wrote mine, but maybe there are connections. What was interesting to me is that my father had very strong dark sides and also positive sides, and I wanted to put the reader in an embarrassing, awkward position. Sometimes you love the character and say, “Oh, he’s nice!” And other times, you are horrified, because you realize, “I am liking this horrifying person.” And this is what I wanted to do.
You have talked about him being very paradoxical. The moments I like are when he’s being lazy, lying on the floor or not getting out of bed to take Riad to school. In those moments there’s no macho guy — he’s tired, vulnerable.
Yes, he’s lazy! [Laughs.]
For all his talk and idealism, he’s just very ordinary.
Yes, yes. I wanted to show all the aspects of him. He was always telling me you should work, and be the best, and be number one in everything, and then after that he was sleeping. [Laughs.] And he was always telling me you should read many books, and books are the most important thing, and he had no books. And I was reading Tintin, the whole day, and thinking, “Where are your books? There are no books!”
When he asks you to read the Qur’an in Volume I, you say, “I can’t, I don’t know how to read Arabic,” and you ask him to teach you. He says “No, just go to school.”
He didn’t really make efforts for other people, other than himself. When he was drawing the wheels of the car, it was obvious for me that the car had round wheels. At two years old, I knew. I remember the scene perfectly. He was drawing the wheels [he draws in my notebook — the wheels are square] and it was obvious to me that a car couldn’t move like this. And he was very angry, telling me, “Oh, you’re trying to teach me how to draw a Mercedes? The wheels are like this!” At two years old, I knew I was better than him at this. When parents think they are divine, it’s very funny to observe.
When I would observe friends, when I was young, I would look at their parents — and each child was thinking that their parent is wonderful and a creature from heaven. Because they are responsible for their birth. I saw the child’s fascination with the father, and also the reality that the father was not so great.
In the end of Volume I, your father talks about his admiration for Assad. It is a rare moment when you see a political figure in the graphic memoir. He is taken with Assad’s power. Readers now, of course, may ask how he can possibly think this about Assad?
I think he was thinking that this guy wasn’t so good, but that he was a good vision of virility. Assad has balls to do things. When a situation is messed up, he doesn’t hesitate to kill people. My father admired this. He hated French politicians who were always like, “Oh, democracy, blah, blah.” Assad would like to execute everyone. And he would hang the minister who disagreed with him. From my father’s point of view, he wasn’t thinking Assad was doing good things.
It was his machismo.
He liked Assad, but he preferred Saddam Hussein because [Laughs] he was Sunni. And Assad was Alawite. My father would always compliment Assad’s beautiful, perfect-sounding Arabic. However, he liked very much how Saddam was a modern man, because at that time, in the 1970s, he was considered a good man by European colonial powers. He received a prize from UNESCO [for his efforts in modernizing the public health system in Iraq].
Yes, European colonial powers often change their minds about dictators. That’s a long history. Qaddafi was shaking hands with Tony Blair in 2004.
Yes, exactly. Him too. Earlier in Europe he was presented as a young, hip playboy. They [Qaddafi, Saddam] were popular figures at one point.
I have family members who are refugees, who fled the Middle East for various political, religious reasons. They have a deep mistrust of and anger toward Middle Eastern governments and their political rulers — and a mistrust and ambivalence toward the American political system. I wonder how common this phenomenon is — this ambivalence, mistrust, rootlessness, and refusal to claim belonging to any one place?
Of course. I tried not to generalize. But a lot of guys are like my father. He came from a poor family — the gap between where he started and where he ended up as a doctor was too big, and he was thinking he had a destiny! He was a little bit crazy. And he was so proud of this. He also hated Israel. It was a huge humiliation for him and his friends — the defeats by Israel. It was like a personal defeat. So he hated the United States, of course; he hated Europe because they had good relations with Israel. It was, like, biblical. As if Europe and the United States prefer the Jew to the Arab. And he wanted to say, “But I am as intelligent as them.” It was very strange.
And meanwhile, the irony, of course, is that his son, Riad, is being taunted as a yahudi (Jew) in the Middle East, and then taunted as a “fag” in Europe.
My name is really Jean Michelle! I am not really Riad. I wanted to have success. I invented all this! [Laughs.] No, really, it was the luck of my life that I was never taken for the guy I was. This was amazing — very good luck. For example, when I was in Syria, my cousins didn’t look at me as their equal. Because I had blonde hair, they thought I was a Jew. And after that I became more anti-Semitic than them so that they would accept me. And then they became tired of my anti-Semitism. For them, I was the anti-Semitic guy: “Oh, Riad, he is the guy who really hates Jews, hates Israel.” I wanted to be accepted by them. And in France, I was the guy who had a funny name, because in French “Sattouf” could be a joke, for “I like her vagina.” It was difficult to be accepted as a French guy. And for Arabs, I had a “European face,” so they never believed I had Arabic origins, and I spoke very “girly.” So I was never accepted. I started to draw to impress girls, because people would tell me, “If you draw, people will love you.” It never worked! Women just said, “Oh, what a geek! He’s disgusting.” So after that I played guitar. I was the guy who played bad. But I think being branded as an outsider was good luck — it gave me a point of view I’m happy with, always outside the main way of thinking. When you draw comics, you are an outsider in the literary world. People always tell me, “Oh, I hate comic books, but I love your books!” [Laughs.] It’s a good position to have.
In the memoir, we also see your mother acclimating to life in your father’s ancestral village, Ter Maaleh. There doesn’t seem to be much religious or ethnic tension between your father’s family and her. What did you make of this?
I don’t know. It’s a mystery. For example, she was never forced to wear the veil, even though the women in the village did. They accepted her as she was. They never asked if she was Muslim. Maybe because the personality of my father was too strong. He’s a modern man, married to a European woman. And in Syria the law didn’t force women to wear the veil. Syria is like the south of Italy of the Muslim world. Nobody forced me to pray. They would ask me why I wasn’t praying, but no one forced me.
So there was no strict religious enforcement, even though people were religious.
This will be in the third volume, but the attitude was like, “Oh, don’t worry, take your time, it will come to you. You don’t want to do it now — it’s okay, don’t worry, it will come to you. Maybe one day you’ll be like us.” The majority of people thought that.
What was the most stunning thing about living in your father’s ancestral village?
The most incredible thing was the feeling that we were living in a place of history. For example, in Volume I, there was an ancient part of the village that was 2,000 years old. It was full of garbage and goats, and children would shit there. It had destroyed walls, and pottery on the ground.
You are in the midst of architectural ruins.
It was incredible — and my cousins were obsessed with finding gold. But it was like a feeling of being in a place that was important to humankind. It wasn’t like that in France. An ancientness. A place that made you believe what others were telling you. Like evidence — something from the past that existed.
The ancientness is striking. The way you drew people from the village, they also appear as if they’re from a long time ago.
Yes, a little bit. Maybe I should not tell you this, because I was thinking I might include it in one of my books, but I remember one day my father showed me a picture of people in my family from the 1940s. One of them took a picture. It was the one time in their life that they could take a picture, and when I looked at the picture, it was exactly the same as the 1980s. No difference. In any way. So I asked — was this last week? [Laughs.] It was the same — the people looking exactly the same. And I still have this image in my mind. Just exactly the same.
As if time moved differently there.
Exactly. The conception of time, of the future, the past, is not the same. For example, I was obsessed with spaceships. For me, the future was, “I will go to space one day.” That’s why I love Elon Musk. He wants to go to Mars. I am 100 percent with him. For my cousins, there was no future. Their future was to have children and to give their children the name of their father and continue like that for many, many years.
Doesn’t Pascal Brutal take place in the future? Can you talk a little bit about this character?
Yes, in the near future. He’s a character I created in 2003; he’s a very French character, a very virile man, but he’s ugly. He has an ugly face. He’s quite big. All the women love him and all the men want to be him. And he lives in the near future in France, and the country is collapsing, like in the Mad Max films. I created a lot of characters at that time who were weak, and I wanted to create a strong man, like a French superhero, who is very macho, wants to make love to a lot of women. But when he is drunk he is gay. But he refuses to believe he is gay. So he wakes up every morning, next to a muscular man, and thinks, “Oh, no, I shouldn’t be here, I need to go home.” So he is homophobic, but he is gay. I think it’s something very common in France. A very important problem in humanity. So many men like this. This refusal to admit their sexuality.
And they vehemently punish other people who are gay.
So, Pascal Brutal functions as an everyman, a mirror to the pathologies of masculinity.
Yes, I made this character as a provocation. Because a lot of men are like him, pretending. I’ve had many men tell me, “I really like Pascal Brutal, but why is he gay?” I say, it’s part of him. Then they say, “But what if you didn’t make him gay?”
You wanted them to be uncomfortable. To see themselves, and then ask themselves.
Yes, exactly. To challenge this supposed convinced heterosexuality.
Will you continue to work on this?
I don’t know … In reality, France has become so shocking that I don’t know … When I started Pascal Brutal it was an exaggeration of reality — now reality is so exaggerated that I can’t …
It’s not a satire anymore. It’s reality.
It’s very difficult to invent shocking things, because everything is shocking now. It was a real problem I had when I was drawing the first volume of Pascal Brutal, because I had to find ideas that were more shocking than reality, and I couldn’t.
What is the biggest difference between living in France now and, say, 10 years ago?
I don’t know. I really like France. We had a horrible terrorist attack, and we are waiting for the country to become more racist. We thought the far right would win, but Marine Le Pen hasn’t won. You have Trump as your president. Britain had Brexit. I’m sure the next French president will not be Marine Le Pen. There is a lot of racism in France, of course, but …
You published with Charlie Hebdo for a decade. And you knew many of the people killed. I saw that you did this strip of a North African guy who has his back turned, and he says something like, “I don’t agree with what they did, but you don’t kill people over drawing the prophet.”
I heard this phrase in the street from a real guy. And I put it in my comic. It was real — a guy working in a shop on my street. What can I say? When this happened, it was a huge shock in France, and hard to intellectualize in that moment. I have not finished processing it. It was very strange. All the guys I knew died.
Will you ever do anything with this — depict any of it?
No, I don’t think so.
Regarding Syria, you’ve said that you no longer recognize it, the Syria you see on TV.
I recognize the backgrounds, but it’s very different from the country that I knew. Before the war, it was much more modern, advanced, than the Syria I knew when I was there.
Is it very strange, very bizarre to see the country that was home to you like this?
What’s very bizarre is to walk in the streets of Paris and hear people speak exactly the language of my cousins, because they are refugees. And they are here. And some are homeless. It’s crazy. As if the world is only made by my life. It’s incredible. The cover of National Geographic was called “The New Europeans.” Those people are my family. Not really — but my family looks like these people. [He points to individuals on the cover.] This was my uncle, this was my aunt, this was my cousin, and they are here. It’s very strange.
Your teacher, who appears at the beginning of Volume II, feels so realistic. She’s a very imposing figure physically and is also psychically menacing. Every time I looked at her I found myself kind of recoiling.
I’m quite proud of this character. I think it’s very close to her in reality. Actually, in reality, she was worse. A lot of characters in The Arab of the Future were worse in reality, and I was always thinking that I have to make them acceptable. This was the case with her. She was very cruel. But she was also very gentle. She was the worst person; she would look at my pullover and ask nicely, “Oh, did your mother make this?” And then 10 minutes later she’d be hitting me. She was larger than life. I had many teachers like her. I put her in the book because I could only put one, but she was a common model. I still think about her in those high-heel shoes, looking as if everything would explode out of them. How could she stand like that? [He draws her foot in a high heel shoe, and we laugh.]
Do you read your work in English? Sam Taylor is the translator. What was it like, being translated? Particularly with insults and curses, which Middle Easterners like to turn into poetic feats. In Volume II, a young girl shouts at Riad, “SHUT YOUR MOUTH, SON OF A DOG! I CURSE YOUR MOTHER’S FATHER’S FATHER! COME FIGHT ME IF YOU DARE!”
Sam did a very good job. Translating the insults is difficult, yes. For example, in the first version, he translated “son of a dog” as “son of a bitch.” I refused this translation. In each language, I struggle with this — Norwegian, Swedish. In each language they want to adapt the translation to the country, the culture, and I refuse this.
I like the way you use colors to distinguish between moods and feelings. Is what you’re doing with color essential to how you express the disconnect between each of these geographic spaces?
Yes, yes. It is very important. I think in the rest of the volumes it will evolve. For example, Volume II has a very small part with blue. For each country I allowed myself to use the colors of the country’s flag, because this is a comic about nationalism. In Syria I use pink, red, and green. In France I use red, white, and blue. In Libya I only use green.
Even though there the blue part is small, it is significant, because it occurs when the family takes a vacation to France to visit Riad’s grandparents. He experiences the thrill of consumerism.
I loved going there as a child. It met a child’s desire — you dream about toys, and then you come to a place where there are toys everywhere. Adults will buy you whatever you want. Regardless of where it was, I would have loved it.
When you look at this young Riad, in your work, what do you like about him the most?
[Laughs.] He was beautiful. He was so handsome. It’s like, at one point in my life I was an elf, and then I became a troll. Now I am a troll who remembers being an elf. I live with a malediction — I was once beautiful! I know what it is! I grew up thinking I was beautiful, but things changed. In my mind I was the little boy everyone wanted to touch. Every woman wanted to touch my hair with her hands.
You thought it would last forever.
Now I’m losing my hair, and soon I won’t have hair at all.
Do you think it would have been strange for young Riad to see his life on the page like this?
Not so much, no. When I was young, I was convinced that I would be a cartoonist. It was a conviction. I was certain I would make drawings and make stories. I always knew that. I’m not really surprised. The first time I was allowed to make a book, I was incredibly happy. I thought, “Ah, okay, this is happening.” I was sure it would happen, and it did.
Leah Mirakhor is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the College of Wooster. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in African American Review and Studies in American Jewish Literature.