The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf

aotfI just finished reading this book and thought it was great at humanizing and forefronting the experiences of Arabs migrating between France and the Middle East. Although the book is from his point of view, it largely focuses on his Arab fathers own identity management as a highly educated history professor trying to integrate his western education with cultural heritage. Although the book is difficult to put down, there is a yearning for greater depth on many of the topics discussed in the book.

Some might try to exclude the work based on its lack of academic rigor from serious scholarly inquiry but that seems to ignore verifiable human experiences from considerations over how individuals are motivated and which cultural forces act upon them. The book is exceptionally important to Western audiences, heavily deprived of first hand accounts of individuals living in these countries and decentering terrorism from our discussions of the Middle East. However, like any auto-ethnogaphy it is important to remember that this is ONE persons experience and not an authoritative claim about everyone’s experiences. A second important feature of the book are the relatable experiences shared by the author that helps humanize what many perceive as an outside other. When Satouff becomes interested in firearms, I have vivid memories of my own parents arguing. My dad would that its natural for boys to want to play with guns, and my mother feared I would shoot an eye out. These connections are critical to building empathy with a population that research shows is highly devalued and feared in mainstream American culture.

The book also doesn’t try to mask the less than fantastic experiences of Satouff in the Middle East either. He describes in detail an incident in which the the neighborhood boys played with a puppy as if it were a football. In another section he describes the commonality of people defecating in the streets. The important part is that he also includes the other side and has a more balanced approach than most who obsess on human rights abuses or terrorism, enabling an otherization of the entire region.

My largest criticism is the lack of depth of exploration of many of the topics covered. Hyphenated identities are a recent topic of inquiry by many recent academics but there is a lack of self reflection by the author on this front. While largely due to its audience being primarily more mainstream there are missed opportunities to by the author to discuss for example being labeled Jewish by his uncles dues to his blonde hair. There are also several questions about the sources of some of the narrative as parts occur before he is likely to have been cognizant. While non academics might not worry about a story that is retold by ones parents, I’m always curious about what parts the parents are omitting in their retelling to their child and how much of the narrative is contributed by the father versus the mother.

Overall an excellent read that challenges some core tenants of contemporary Western attitudes while keeping the reader engaged and interested throughout and will definitely be reading the sequel.





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