Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
By Marjane Satrapi
For six-year-old Marji, the rebellious heroine of Marjane Satrapi’s brilliant graphic memoir, Persepolis, growing up in pre-revolutionary Iran was a study in contradictions: parental support and scientific progress; Islamic Revolution, war, and god. Her comingof-age journey is plagued by Guardians of the Revolution with the power to arrest girls for wearing “punk shoes” and tight jeans, schoolteachers who hand out “keys to paradise” to impressionable young boys during the Iran-Iraq War and hypocritical Mullahs who preach the morality of Islam, yet execute citizens like Marji’s uncle for holding dissenting views.
Satrapi, who now lives in Paris, refers to the life in Iran after the Mullahs took over in 1979 as an epidemic of “schizophrenia”: obedience and burqas in broad daylight, political discussions behind closed doors, and wild and drunken dancing at night. These contradictions may seem tough to navigate (as we see in Arab regimes, who are adept at letting in McDonalds but keeping out civil liberties) but even tougher to do without. Satrapi once asked in an interview with Salon, “What is the point in living? Just eating and shitting and making money?”
To prevent the Iranian Mullahs and the Bush administration alike from paralyzing us with paranoia, we need to take risks, to really live – a feat that feisty and rebellious Marji pulls off with inspiring ease. The politically conscious preteen sneaks to a protest with her maid, discusses romance with her neighbor, seeks refuge in the family’s basement to brood and smoke, and strolls the streets of Tehran in denims, Nike sneakers and a Michael Jackson button, lying her way out of trouble.
Satrapi’s minimalist, black-and-white comic strips contrast sharply with Marji’s free spirit, reminding readers that even a youth’s overflowing energy and optimism cannot disguise the harshness of reality. It is clear that for Satrapi, a society obsessed with safety and security is a society lacking in freedom. Any kind of fear can cripple, whether generated from a vague threat of terrorism, or a very immediate threat of imprisonment or execution.
And for as frightening and exotic as seventies and eighties Iran may seem to most Americans, Marji’s personal experiences ring with a hint of familiarity. Persepolis was crafted with such genuine humanity that the characters seem, well, just like us. Marji and her fellow countrymen may live schizophrenic lives, but that doesn’t mean that humanity on a whole is divided into extremes. Iranians aren’t all that different from Americans, and average Muslims not so different from average Westerners, despite what politicians and the media might lead us to believe.
We all need family and friends, a sense of humor, and a touch of daredevil spirit to survive.
And, for many of the world’s citizens, survival means facing the sort of power-hungry rulers that cross all cultural boundaries, the ones that that use selfish interpretations of religion and morality to oppress their people.