Here's a new thing: A paper I submitted on a graphic novel. It's an academic approach, not often seen in our discussions. I hope you folks will enjoy it.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood is a memoir. But it is evident from the 2002 “Introduction” that author Marjane Satrapi had higher aspirations than just a coming-of-age story:
Since (the revolution) this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. That is why writing Persepolis is important to me. I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists.
So Persepolis is supposed to be more than a bildungsroman, but – as we shall see – not quite a history. Given that it is set in Iran during the fall of the shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic, it is clearly meant to convey insight into what William Cleveland's A History of the Modern Middle East calls the “‘cataclysmic event’ that transformed the country’s political, social, economic, and legal structure” (p. 423). But it is not meant to be comprehensive, limited as it is to one family’s experience.
Did Persepolis succeed in its ambitions? This essay examines that question by breaking down Satrapi’s efforts and determining its strengths and weaknesses.
The Strengths of ‘Persepolis’
'Persepolis’ As Memoir
Satrapi sets out to tell the story of her childhood and family, incorporating the effects of, and their reactions to, the Islamic revolution, in an accessible graphic novel format. It seems inarguable that she succeeded.
The art is rendered in the deceptively simple Franco-Belgian style and derived (according to Satrapi’s Facebook page, among other sources) from her artistic mentor, David B., of Epilepsy fame. This art style is perfectly suited to a story from the perspective of a young girl, one that is more complex than it seems.
As to story, we come to know Marjane’s family pretty well. Primarily we learn that they are on journeys of their own – and are quite contradictory. This is not only quite human, but the stuff of a successful memoir.
During the shah’s regime, Marjane’s parents talk a good game about Marxism. They espouse leftist philosophy (with Uncle Anoosh, p. 62, and Siamak Jari and Mohsen Shakiba, pp. 47-52). They buy Marji books lionizing Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and other heroes of the left (p. 12). They tell her of her grandfather, a prince who became a Marxist (p. 23), and contradict her teacher’s assertion that God selected the shah (p. 21).
But, in the real world, they are not good Marxists. At home they live very well, and Dad drives a Cadillac (p. 6). They play Monopoly (p. 25). They have a maid, Mehri, who does not eat with her betters (p. 33), and when a neighbor boy has a crush on Mehri, Ebi destroys the would-be lovers’ budding romance by revealing their class differences. He doesn’t believe anything unless he hears it on the BBC (pp. 83, 135). And later, when Taji suggests moving to the West, Ebi’s exasperated – and class-conscious – reply is “so that I can become a taxi driver and you a cleaning lady?” (p. 64).
All of these contradictions lead Marji to ask “Dad, are you for or against social classes?” (p. 37).
But, while initially Marji doesn’t believe her father to be a hero (p. 52), he is no coward or fool. He has the courage to march repeatedly against the shah (p. 18). He sticks up for Marji against pompous school officials (pp. 8, 98). He takes in Mali’s family as refugees (p. 90), smuggles in Western posters for Marji (p. 129), and tries to illegally achieve a fake passport for the ailing Taher (p. 123). Even Marjane concedes by page 84, “I was all wrong about Dad.”
Marjane’s mother also goes through a journey, although it is obliquely presented. She appears to be increasingly radicalized, due to the deaths of friends and family and a near-rape, but also possibly due to the rollback of women’s rights under the Islamic Republic that Cleveland describes (p. 437). Early on, she marches against the shah, but it seems almost a duty (p. 16, panel 1). But later she is given to saying things like “All torturers should be massacred!” (p. 52) and “(Marji) should start learning to defend her rights as a woman right now!” (p. 76). After being insulted, assaulted, and threatened with rape by what were likely Basiji (p. 74), she calls them “fundamentalist bastards” and “perverts.” Marji concedes on page 87, “Since the 1979 revolution … Mom had changed.”
Taji has her contradictions, too. Although courageous enough to protest the veil, she is fearful enough to dye her hair as a disguise (p. 5). And after lecturing Marji about food hoarding on page 87 (“If people took only what they needed, there would be enough to go around!”), she proceeds to hoard a little extra rice herself.
These contradictions are perfectly in line with a theme that runs throughout the book, of the dichotomy between the private and public lives of Iranians, who must give lip service in public first to the shah’s politics and later to revolutionary rhetoric – but at home try to live as they always have. And not seeing one’s own small hypocrisies is universal, which makes Ebi and Taji endearing.
However, the heart of the story is Marjane, and it is her evolution – the "story of a childhood" – that is the framework of the narrative. She begins the book highly religious (“I was born with religion,” p. 6) but by the end has literally stopped speaking to God. In the first few pages she is an ardent revolutionary, but by book’s end is fleeing the revolution she once championed. And her childish assessments of her father as “no hero” (p. 52) and her mother as a “dictator” (p. 113) ends with her thinking “I never realized how much they loved me. And I understood how important they were to me” (p. 150).
These changes are subtle and gradual, constituting the bulk of the memoir. They also, fortunately, reflect many major elements of the Islamic revolution.
‘Persepolis’ As History
Following the narrative of the revolution through class discussions and assigned readings, Persepolis provides one example after another.
In class discussions, the revolution was described as a “mass based political movement” that included “Communists, workers, peasants, ulema, students, women’s groups, professionals, etc.” Satrapi agrees on page 3: “In 1979 a revolution took place. It was later called ‘the Islamic Revolution’" (italics mine). And Ebi laments on page 62, “The revolution is a leftist revolution and the republic wants to be called Islamic.” Marji chimes in with the claim by the regime that 99.99% voted for the Islamic Republic, a number which only a child could believe. (Ebi and Uncle Anoosh do not believe it.)
According to Cleveland, “The leading voices in the first public expression of protest were the Westernized urban professionals and students from the new secular universities” (p. 425) – like Ebi and Taji Satrapi. Further, Mehdi Bazargan, founder of the opposition Freedom Movement, was an engineer – like Ebi. Further still, the Movement’s “most influential ideologue” was Ali Shari‘ati, a fan of the Algerian and Cuban revolutions, who wrote a treatise asserting the story of Cain and Abel as a metaphor for capitalism vs. communism (“Ali Shari‘ati: The Philosophy of History”), and who “advanced a reformist doctrine that brought together an unlikely combination of Marxism, Shi‘ism, revolutionism, and Iranian patriotism” (Cleveland, p. 426). The Satrapis would likely have been fans.
The clashes described in Cleveland and in class discussions that coincided with the 40-day mourning periods are reflected in the early pages of Persepolis (p. 18), as Marji’s parents appear to be regulars at the protests. It is Marji herself who attends the infamous, violently repressed “Black Friday” revolt (p. 39) that “placed a sea of blood between the shah and the people” (Cleveland, p. 429).
In the end, Cleveland says, “The secular middle-class reformers, who had once expected to dominate the post-shah era, were frightened into flight or silence” (p. 434). Again, this is reflected in Persepolis, especially with the flight of many of Marji’s relatives and the family of her friend Kaveh (p. 63-64). Kaveh says, presciently, “My dad says nobody realizes the danger.”
One of these dangers was the rollback of civil rights, especially for women, in the name of Islam (Cleveland, p. 437). This is represented strongly in Persepolis, as it directly affected a Western-oriented, self-described “modern and avant-garde” (p. 6), upper-middle-class family. We also see the hypocrisy involved. Instances include the aforementioned Basiji attack on Taji; Marji’s class being gender separated, with the girls forced to take the veil (p. 4); Taji blocking the windows, ostensibly to block flying glass but also to prevent neighbors from denouncing them for their card games and parties (p. 105); Tinoosh’s father lashed and fined for records, videocassettes, and games (p. 105); the morality police stopping Ebi and wanting to search his house, possibly because of his Western tie, only to be bought off (p. 108-111); and the women’s branch of the Guardians of the Revolution hassling Marji (p. 133).
Cleveland also notes that the revolution eventually began to eat its own. In 1981, after some leftist attacks, “the government responded … with mass arrests and executions of such intensity that they constituted a reign of terror. . . . All of Iran’s universities and colleges had been shut down in 1980 in order to undergo Islamization” (p. 435). Again, this is reflected in Persepolis, with Shakiba murdered (p. 66); Jari’s sister killed in his place (p. 67); Anoosh executed as a Russian spy (p. 70); the rape and murder of the teenage Communist girl (p. 146); and the 300,000 political prisoners mentioned on page 144. The university closings are mentioned on page 73, with a government representative saying “Better to have no students at all than to educate future imperialists.”
Also, Homa Hoodfar’s “Khanom Gohary: An Iranian Community Leader” in Edmund Burke’s Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East mentions that Iraq’s bombs targeted affluent North Tehran to pressure the regime to end the war – which is reflected in the affluent Satrapis’ bombing experiences in North Tehran, including the death of Neda Baba-Levy (p. 142). The poor also suffered, by being thrown en masse into the war (Burke, p. 347-348), which Persepolis addresses by showing the wounded in the hospital (p. 120) and showing how only Marji’s poor acquaintances were given “keys to paradise” and drafted (p. 99-102) while she and her more affluent friends partied.
Finally, both in classroom discussions and in Cleveland (p. 435) it’s mentioned that the war allowed the regime to consolidate its power, and that it was extended for that purpose. Persepolis marches in lockstep, with the metaphor on page 10 (“The revolution is like a bicycle. When the wheels don’t turn, it falls.”) acting as foreshadowing, and ending with the grim “We eventually admitted that the survival of the regime depended on the war” (p. 106).
The Limits of ‘Persepolis’
Where Persepolis succeeds it is often because it honestly presents the point of view of one particular girl and her family in the right time and place, and their reactions to huge historical events. But that is also the weakness of Persepolis, in that one family can’t represent all issues.
For example, the 1978 recession that drove the poor and working class to desperation, (Cleveland, p. 429), had no impact on the well-to-do Satrapi family, and gets no mention in Persepolis. Similarly, the new regime’s catastrophic attempts at land redistribution (after the shah’s equally catastrophic attempts), that left the Iranian countryside “chaotic for most of the 1980s” (Cleveland, p. 436), was simply not part of the Satrapi experience.
And what of the 50 percent of Iranians who “do not speak Persian as a first language and … do not identify with Persian culture” (Burke, p. 224)? Lois Beck tells a compelling story of how the shah’s “White Revolution” upended and radicalized some of the Qashqa’i (Burke, pp. 223-236), a situation no doubt replayed all over rural, tribal Iran. But wealthy, urban, Persian Persepolis will not mention any of this, despite the Qashqa’i insurgency of 1980-82.
What would the Satrapi family know of the likes of Zan-I Hajji Daqqaq (Burke, “An Iranian Village Boyhood,” p. 237), who was thought to be possessed by jinn, but was more likely mentally ill? Nor would they care about the elaborate passion plays Mehdi Amedi’s tribe celebrated during the festival of Ashura. And if they met either Rubabeh, the midwife, or Maryam, the washer of the dead, they would likely want to wash their hands.
Finally, even large events like the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis are overlooked in Persepolis, which focuses on a single family. Despite being one of the two biggest foreign challenges of the new regime (the other being the Iraq War), Taji Satrapi says “I couldn’t care less” about the hostages (p. 72). And Marjane herself says on the Jan. 28, 2008, The Colbert Report: “This hostage-taking, it was big in America, but for us it wasn’t a big deal.” From this we may understand that it wasn’t important to the Satrapi family, and therefore not dealt with in Persepolis. But from a historical perspective, it was, in fact, a very big deal.
The strengths and weaknesses of Persepolis as memoir, sociological study, and historical piece are defined by its premise as the point of view of a single family in a remarkable place in a remarkable time. This one family, by virtue of its patrician position in class and politics, manages to experience and reflect many of the major events of the Iranian revolution (and Cleveland’s book). This, however, is also the weakness of the book in many ways, as this one family’s point of view is necessarily determined and shaped by its own biases and viewpoint. While those looking for the attitudes and experiences of upper-middle-class Persians in Tehran in 1980 have hit the jackpot, any other contemporaneous Iranian experience – including the U.S. hostage crisis, which no history of the time should overlook – are out of luck.
Marjane probably summed this up best on the The Colbert Report, when she said “I’m not a politician, I’m not a sociologist, I’m not a historian. I wanted to make a movie (of Persepolis) of a person who is born in a certain place and in a certain time. The two times she left her country (there were) so many misunderstandings that (I try) to give a different version of the story.”
And in this, I think she succeeds brilliantly. But for those looking for a more comprehensive view, there is always Cleveland.