I just created another Dystopian Review video to examine Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a graphic novel and autobiography about her experiences growing up around the Iranian Revolution. It’s a long video, indeed, but it’s worth the effort as I cover the Iranian Revolution, as well! If you’re a history, politics, or just-general-information buff, this one’s for you!
If you’d like, you can pop the video out of this tab and scroll down to read the original Dystopian Review article from my days as a writer for Suite101. Enjoy!
In today’s world, we hardly think of revolutions as something happening right next door. Oh, sure, there’s some third-world country undergoing one some time or another, and there was that big “Arab Spring” we heard about a couple years ago, but it’s not like there’s actively any chance of our country radically changing its political ideology any time soon, right? Considering I couldn’t possibly know what country you’re reading from, well, there’s a good chance I’m just coming up with a clever opening line!
The reason for this line is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a graphic novel which is really more of an autobigraphy. Written in 2002, and it’s a rather good reason. Persepolis is a rather unusual bit, as some of the details of Satrapi’s tale are most certainly skewed in order to protect those of her family who still live in the nation now known as Iran. As Satrapi illustrates, they have already suffered quite enough.
The Price of Revolution
As I sit here with my copy of “The Complete Persepolis,” the first thing which greets me is the introduction. It discusses some ancient history, up to and including how the nation of Iran gained its current name. It is a story most Americans are likely unfamiliar with, as Satrapi explains: “This old and great civilization hs been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism.” It’s hard to argue that the political narrative has been to generalize Iran’s goals; here’s just one example of an Israeli minister stating that Iran wants Israel, well, dead. Considering some of the riddiculous things its leaders have said, this isn’t an entirely unreasonable perspective save for one critically important point: Iran is not a nation consisting solely of a bunch of priests and a whack-a-mole president, but rather a country made up of millions of people who do not want war.
Satrapi’s story begins with her youth, and in particular her days as a child living under the pre-revolutionary government. Back then, the Shah ruled over the country; and, as Satrapi’s parents duly elucidate, there is much more to the background of the Iranian revolution than the simple rise of Islamic extremism. That fanatic viewpoint just happened to be the victor of a much larger cultural struggle which took place, overthrowing the Western-backed Shah. Did I say Western-backed? Well, the Shah only came to power after the deposition of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953; the Iranian Prime Minister who just happened to want to nationalize Iran’s oil resources. It’s rather well established fact that America and Britain helped to perpetrate this coup, and Satrapi reasonably argues that it was the Shah’s poor, even cruel governance which sparked the revolution in the first place.
Still, while this may be the first lesson Persepolis puts forth, it’s far from the last. It doesn’t even try to argue that the ultimate victors were somehow better than the previous rulers. Far from it, the very first page of artwork condemns the fanatic viewpoint. In fact, Marjane even make clear that the views her parents held about social classes and rulership were, themselves, occasionally hypocritical. What’s more, things always seemed to get worse; the second Shah was worse than the first, and the Islamic government was worse than the Shah!
Ultimately, the story has a happy-ish ending. Marjane eventually leaves Iran, sent to a foreign school due to her refusal to conform. She experiences Western culture, freedoms, and weed! Wait, you thought that’s the ending? Nonsense! Eventually, she returns to Iran after some time in the West; the revolution’s passionate fires had died down somewhat, but oppression was still rampant. She does eventually return to the West again, of her own volition, but she never fully assimilates to the Western style of life, either.
And therein lies the message.
Persepolis shines a light into darkness
While Satrapi certainly lived in a rather Dystopian situation, there is one underlying fact which need to be remembered: The entire world is not so bad. Persepolis was written to stand in defiance of the generalization of Iran as a nation composed mostly of lunatics. Yes, there are bad people; yes, there is a police state; yes, good people die for infinitisimal crimes like satire! But her message is that most Iranians are not in step with this system, at least not completely, and that there is truly more to her homeland than meets the Western eye.
On one hand, it is easy to compare this story to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Both feature oppressed female protagonists who live in defiance of the regieme controlling them, and both tales include characters sympathetic towards her. These are not the raging hordes of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. If one critical difference between the two novels is that between autobiography and fiction, than the second must surely be the devilish details of the message.
Satrapi’s story humanizes an often-dehumanized society, while revealing that it is still incredibly flawed. It’s a must read for anyone who wants to even begin to understand the insidious nature of religious fundimentalism, while simultaneously demonstrating how – when the time is right, one day – there could indeed be a revolution in the streets of Tehran once more, one that a cruel police state will once more fail to prevent. Or, perhaps, any city, if needed! But, until then, Persia’s legacy will live on only as a footnote – forgotten and replaced by a dark conjuration of extremism.