“Freedom of expression must be used”

Riad Sattouf has laid the last stone of its great work, the one that alone justifies all the others. The Arab of the future has become the universal testimony of a child of his time, well beyond comics.

At last! All readers who have been following Riad Sattouf’s autobiographical series for eight years and who have completed this sixth and final volume, finally know what has become of Fadi, his little brother kidnapped in volume 4 (and in 1992). “What triggered in my head the idea of ​​telling this story in a comic strip is what happens at the end of this volume 6confirmed the author. But I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet! As soon as I say too much, I immediately receive bursts of messages.” A first remark that says a lot about the bigger than life success of this very intimate graphic story, but which resonated with a much larger audience than the author himself could have hoped. Because who, in fact, could have predicted such success for a book that “tells the true story of a blond child and his family in Gaddafi’s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria”, as its first back cover explained? For eight years, the success of these childhood memories has only been growing. Attempt at explanations and assessment in the company of its author.

By closing this sixth volume, we understand that everything you have created and designed so far, even before The Arab of the future, brought you to him. How was this final chapter built?

The first five volumes, I wrote them all in a bit the same way: with a precise breakdown and storyboard, which I had a few trusted readers reread. And when I had a pre-cut version that satisfied me, I threw myself into inking. But here, I adopted a completely different rhythm, already because I had broken my arm at the beginning of the year and was five months late: I drew everything directly, page after page, without precut, really in my corner. Something instinctive, close to automatic writing as Moebius could practice it, over the pen. And it is the volume that contains the most dreamlike.

© marie rouge/Allary editions

It is also the volume that appears the most intimate, the most personal, even if the whole is so in essence. The one where you indulge the most?

It’s true, I have a lot of feedback in this direction. But it’s not very intellectualized on my side, I just tell what had to be told. Arabic, it was also to tell how, in a time when we are all referred to our religious, cultural, ethnic, geographical or national identity, I who was the mixture of several identities had to, to go beyond this story, invent myself and get me another one. Who is the identity of those who make books. We don’t have to be closed in on our ethnic or national origins to have a personality and feel we exist. Identity is something that is built and that we must seek ourselves.

Was that your common thread from the start? A quest for identity, but one that must be “tell as it is not told elsewhere”, to use your own words?

When I started, I really wanted to tell what I had seen and experienced without letting myself be influenced by an ideology, a well-thought or a morality to transmit. I really wanted to be the most pristine and neutral. And I, who have lived in several dictatorships, in real totalitarian regimes, I had the chance to realize that the peace and democracy that we live in France is not a given: the freedom to expression, it must be used, it is not carved in stone. And I also like to repeat how France is undoubtedly the best country in the world when it comes to literature or creation. This is where there are the most readers per square meter, the most people interested in other cultures, where there are the most publishers, the most books translated…. An extraordinary country with an intellect that must be preserved. And my way is to make as many books as possible with as much freedom as possible.

© Riad Sattouf/Allary editions

A freedom that has found a much wider audience than you yourself expected.

I come from a family where the paranormal has always been extremely present, and not just on my father’s side. It influenced me a lot, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of ​​seeing a paranormal phenomenon. But the only magical phenomenon that I experienced was the success of The Arab of the future. All these people who know this story so well, who are touched, who ask me for news of my family, whereas for decades absolutely no one was interested… It’s a bit supernatural. But it’s also mind-blowing fun! I know many famous or very gifted authors or writers, but without a reader. But we all want to be read by as many people as possible, and concerning me, people in real life. I wanted to bring people from my basic social background to comics.

It is in fact one of the characteristics of the series, its accessible side, readable by all… Even though you come from a universe that is more “trash” than mainstream.

It’s true that now I love to make comics thinking of a reader who knows nothing about them. When I started to publish books, I was still very young and very close to adolescence, and to Syria. I had a very liberating need. I loved, and I still love, authors like Robert Crumb or Philippe Vuillemin who take full advantage of their freedom of expression. And then it’s true that at the beginning Arabic, I wanted my Breton grandmother to be able to read it, she who hates both comics and swear words. And thinking about it, it triggered a whole other process, which made me come back to what I had loved about Hergé in my childhood: a story accessible to everyone, readable in a pleasant way, where there is no of mistakes, where the reader is taken into account. I found that with this series: the reader’s concern. Who gives it back to me a hundredfold.

On the back cover, this time, you write that “this book tells the true story of the disappearance of the Arab of the future“…So it wasn’t you, that Arab.

Who is the Arab of the future? I will allow myself to paraphrase David Lynch, who answered “the answer is the movie”, when he was asked the question of what he had wanted to say: the answer is the book! It was first a quote from my father, then it became an idea. A little nostalgic, outdated phrase, like “The Brussels resident of tomorrow”. It raises a smile, but it also had a meaning for many, which evokes nationalism, identity and the future, whether it be decline or progress. A title as a mantra, and the keystone of an entire universe.

2014

Release of the first volume, with a print run aligned with Sattouf’s previous successes, including Pascal Brutal: 30,000 copies. Critical success was immediate – he won the Fauve d’or at Angoulême – and already marked the beginning of an extraordinary popular success. In one year, 200,000 copies are sold. Syria was then in the midst of a civil war.

2015

Release of the second volume, five months after the attacks in Paris and Charlie Hebdo, with an installation of 75,000 copies. The childhood memories of Riad, born to a Syrian father and a Breton mother, between Syria, Libya and Iraq, become a reference, and a unique testimony of its kind.

2016

Release of the third volume. The first two have already sold more than a million copies, and have 17 translations. Riad Sattouf is named Knight of Arts and Letters. A year later, he received the National Order of Merit.

2018

Release of volume 4. A first set-up of 250,000 copies is carried out despite higher pagination (280 pages) and a tilting of the story towards drama: we witness the religious radicalization of Riad’s father, and especially the abduction by the latter of his little brother Fadi.

2020

Release of volume 5, while the successive printings of the first four volumes alone are close to 2 million. The Arab of the future has become the perfect gift, which we offer well beyond the circle of comic book lovers.

2022

Release of volume 6, with a first print run of 370,000 copies in French, before a planned edition in 23 other languages ​​- but not yet Arabic.

The Arab of the future – T. 6: Youth in the Middle East (1994 – 2011)

“My name is Riad. In 1994 I was 16 and a semi-psychopath. So begins the last volume of The Arab of the future, in a unique blend of humor and drama. While Riad is on his way to becoming one of the hilarious “Beaux Gosses” of his first film, this kid torn between two cultures may be living the worst years of his adolescence. A brother who has been kidnapped, a father who is literally haunting him, a mother who is sinking into depression, that’s a lot for a somewhat lost kid who will have to find roots other than his own: it will be drawing, and comics. A journey of emancipation that will take him many years and from which Riad Sattouf hides nothing, neither the anxieties, nor the psychotherapy sessions, nor the fundamental professional encounters (Menu, Vatine, Delcourt, Bravo, Sapin…), nor the need imperative to tell this story to perhaps better live it, understand it and accept it. As always, Riad has the good taste to sprinkle it with anecdotes, good words and humor, from the improbable meeting with Chirac to the Arab Spring and the failure of his second film, Jacky in the kingdom of girlswhich will push him to leave the studio he shared with Sfar, Sapin and Blain to find himself alone with himself and this Arabic of the future that he has carried with him for years. But that he didn’t dare to face, like this infinitely toxic father who seems to constantly whisper in his ear how powerful the Force is on the Dark Side… Riad, like a Jedi, resisted, and finished by drawing a saga that will be a landmark in the history of comics. How many books can indeed be proud of at the same time making their readers laugh, cry and enlighten their readers on geopolitics in the Middle East, French identity or the springs of creation? Come to think of it, we only know of six.

by Riad Sattouf, Allary editions, 184 pages. 9

“Freedom of expression must be used”