Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is very engaging. I sat down and read the memoir in a couple days; I couldn’t put it down. Satrapi’s story isn’t just that of a young girl growing up in Iran, but also a historical viewpoint on the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Satrapi’s art fits perfectly with the story. It reflects the youth in the story, and the stark black inking works well with the dourness of Marji and her family’s story. But at times, Satrapi’s illustrations are masterful with showing the warmth and love that Majri and her family have for one another.
While I wasn’t alive when the Iranian Revolution happened, like most Westerns, my view is littered with media interpretations (which are far too anti-Islamic for my comfort) and peppered with American leftist views on oil and imperialism. In fact in Satrapi’s introduction, she writes that she does not want Iran judged based solely on the extremists who came to power. And the other reason she wrote Persepolis was to remember all the Iranians who fought against the theocratic government.
Satrapi’s story comes from a somewhat privileged background itself. She left Iran right before she became a young woman, was educated in Vienna and Strasbourg, and now lives in Paris. Satrapi comes from a Marxist family, and her grandfather was the Prince of Iran before the Shah was put into power. Even when she still lived in Iran, Satrapi did not live the life of the typical young girl. Which I do think Persepolis, while it does not often explore other viewpoints as young Marji is a strong narrator, does address the privilege of her family and how their political views influenced her. Also at no point does Satrapi claim to be the sole viewpoint of growing up during the Iranian Revolution; in fact, Persepolis‘s subtitle (at least in the English version) is “The Story of a Childhood.”
What Persepolis does best is subtly weave a tale about how the Iranian Cultural Revolution is a misnomer. If anything, the oppressive nature slowly killed differences in culture and killed what Marji and her family loved about Iran. One of the most haunting stories recounts the end of Marji’s friendship with Neda Baba-Levy, the Jewish girl living down the street from her.
Marji comes into conflict with the new regime almost immediately. She and most of her female classmates are unhappy about now having to wear a veil while at school. And that their French school is now segregated by gender. Marji also questions her teachers as she notices the textbooks change to support the Revolution and put down the Shah. She additionally shocks her teachers when she informs them she wants to be a prophet when she grows up.
As part of her self-declared prophet-hood, Marji has conversations with God nightly and converts her one-and-only follower her Grandma, as she makes a rule about taking care of the elderly. Her brand of religion is colored by her own child’s eye-view and what her family has taught her. The young Marji cannot understand why her parents don’t want to tell everyone she’s going to be a prophet or why the idea upsets her teachers so much.
Marji’s parents, Ebi and Taji, were hoping for a Marxist Revolution instead of the one they got. So much so that Marji’s long exiled to the USSR uncle, Anoosh comes back to Iran. In fact, at the beginning of Persepolis, Marji’s family seems to hopeful that everything will be better. She accounts how almost every day her parents go protest on the streets of Tehran.
Slowly the world around Marji and her family changes. Their friends, who were political prisoners freed during the Revolution, are once again jailed or killed outright on the street. Marji herself comes close to getting into trouble for her sneakers, jean jacket, and black market Def Leopard tapes. Her parents become more and more paranoid as the years go on. And they have good reason to as they watch their freedoms slowly erode. Marji departs from God as she sees Iranian boys her own age going off to fight — to be slaughtered — in the Iran-Iraq War.
But the strongest message I got out reading this was the resilience of beliefs and the resilience of a family’s love. Marji’s whole family is shaken, and some of them are killed. In the end, her family sends her away to Vienna to protect her. However, they do it out of love. They do it because they want to know that their daughter is growing up safely into the woman she wants to be.
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