By Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon Books, 2003
General reading value: 5/5
Armchair travel value: 4/5
Fly-by summary: Autobiographical account of growing up during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and its aftermath told through graphic novel format.
Why this book? Interested to see how successful Satrapi would be in conveying the horrors of this period in Iran’s history by way of a graphic novel with minimal text.
Take the full tour: I am no longer a graphic novel virgin. Due to a pathological abhorrence of anything animated or in cartoon/comic style, I believed that regardless of how eclectic and open-minded my bibliophilic tendencies are, the graphic novel format would leave me cold. In the spirit of new adventures, which this blog is all about after all, I decided to abandon my fears of pictorial prose and having heard so many positive reviews about Persepolis, I thought it would provide the likely best option for this journey into unchartered reading territory.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I not only adopted the graphic novel style with ease but found this book utterly riveting, completing it in a single night.
Persepolis covers the period of Satrapi’s life from when she was 6 to 14 during which time occurred the overthrowing of the Shah’s regime and the 1979 Islamic Revolution, followed by war between Iran and Iraq. The book opens with a brief summary of the history of Iran from its conception in the second millenium BC as “Iran” – a derivative of “Ayryana Vaejo” meaning “the origins of the Aryans” – to its destruction by Cyrus the Great in the seventh century BC and his creation of what was to be known as Persia through to 1935 when Reza Shah requested it again be called Iran and, finally, up until the exile of the last Shah in 1979.
The graphic part of the book begins with Satrapi’s description of how, at 10 years of age, she, along with all other Iranian women, was forced to start wearing the veil when it became obligatory in 1980, based on the belief that the hair on women’s bodies sent out rays that excited men. The mandating of the veil is just one of many cultural, social and political changes to drastically alter the lifestyle of the Iranian people in the ensuing years.
Satrapi then backtracks to recount her childhood as the sole offspring of Marxist parents whose intellectual interests were instilled and encouraged in their precocious daughte from birth. Satrapi was a child whose bedtime stories included Dialectic Materialism and the treatises of Descartes and Marx and who had evening discussions with God in which she informed Him of her plans to become a prophet. Her parents explain to her how the Shah came to power and how the Republican ideal has been interpreted by other leaders such as Gandhi and Atakurk. Satrapi learns that the Emperor who was overthrown by Reza Shah was her great-grandfather and that her grandfather, dispossessed of his princely title, became the Prime Minister of the Shah’s Republic but was subsequently repeatedly gaoled due to his intellectual protestations against the Shah’s politics. And here I was reading The Babystitter’s Club and Judy Blume books at the same age!
Satrapi then depicts the months of repeated massacres as the Shah desperately tried to hold onto power, followed by the jubilations when he abdicated which quickly became anti-climatic as the first of many cultural changes swept the country. Satrapi writes/draws about these with enough humour and child-like perspective that the material does not become overwhelming. For example, she reveals the natural adolescent devastation that can occur when one’s crush leaves for another country – in this instance the object of her affections has fled to the United States because his parents believed it was impossible to live under an Islamic Regime.
Similarly, Satrapi’s youthful dreams of becoming the next Marie Curie (as well as a prophet?) are dashed when the regime declares all universities would be closed until the “decadent” curriculum that risked creating “imperialists” could be revised.
The normal rites of passage a child goes through to become an adolescent and teenager are then juxtaposed with the increasingly repressive regime operating in Iran. Having parties, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, listening to western music, even wearing sneakers were all forbidden activities but in this case, Satrapi’s enjoyment of such activities was not in rebellion to her parents (who in fact encouraged and also participated in them) but the “Guardians of the Revolution”.
I found Persepolis both enlightening and entertaining and was thrilled to see there is a sequel as well as a film. It is a fascinating read and the graphic format adds an extra touch to Satrapi’s already highly personal account of her life in Iran. Next post I will be Sightseeing in Thailand…
The Literary Nomad xx
| More on Iran…
Area: 1,648,195 km2
Delay your stay: The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther; The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer; Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi; Persian Brides by Dorit Rabinyan; My Father’s Notebook by Kader Abdolah