One of the reasons that books are important is that they teach us about other people or events in history. Books can help us to understand people from different cultures, or they help to understand the different ways people experienced historical events. With that I don’t only mean history books, but also fiction books, be it comic books, children books, young adult books or books for adults. There is a big sub-genre in comic books doing exactly that, and Persepolis is a good example. Persepolis tells the story of Marjane Satrapi (1969) who grew up during the Iranian Revolution. Her story tells us how normal people living in Iran dealt with the revolution and the consecutive Islamic regime.
This book is a memoir of Satrapi’s life from when she was about 10 until about 25. At 25 she left Iran and moved to France and she hasn’t been back in Iran. In between, she lived in Vienna for a while to attend high school, where her parents hoped she’d find more freedom. However, in Vienna, she finds loneliness and alienation and she returns to Iran. Eventually, she decided to leave Iran as well, because she cannot deal with the restrictive regime anymore. She moved to France and she hasn’t been back to Iran since then. Satrapi writes the book from the perspective of herself, which means that when she is ten the book is told from her perspective as a ten-year-old, and when she is fourteen from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old and so on. In this way, at the beginning of the book, we learn to make sense of the sudden changes in Satrapi’s world, just as she has to do as a child. One way this is done is when Satrapi asks her grandparents about the history of Iran, giving us as readers important background information as well. When Satrapi grows older her frustration with the regime grows and we as readers are frustrated with her because we both know more about the regime.
This story has two main storylines: The first one is the Iranian revolution which started in 1978 and culminated in the Islamic theocracy in Iran up to this day. The other storyline is the coming-of-age story of Marjane Satrapi during the revolution. Throughout the book, her life, and that of her parents changes dramatically. Bit by bit the freedom they were used to disappeared. Freedom of opinion, the choice to wear what one wants, the ability to drink and to have social gatherings with men and women together. Not all people disagree with the new laws though and tension grows between the more modern Iranians and the ones adhering to traditional religious rule. The easiest way to explain this contrast is comparing ‘modern’ with a Western way of living, and religious as following rules from the Koran and against everything Western. The reality is more complex, but for that, I advise you to read the book.
Satrapi was a passionate child with a large sense of right and wrong. Also, her parents were progressive thinkers and adhered to some Marxist ideas. They motivated Satrapi to read a lot of books and to develop an independent mind. However, an independent mind is dangerous in the new regime. Her parents struggled to make her heed the new laws imposed by the revolution. Satrapi is too young at the beginning to fully understand how dangerous the country is becoming. When her parents get a call from Satrapi’s school because she is talking back to the teachers they tell her the story of a girl who got raped and murdered by the police. There are many stories like that and Satrapi learned to be more careful. She is not giving up rebellion completely though. She tries to bend the new laws as much as possible by wearing lipstick, having illegal posters in her room and asking her parents to smuggle punk music into the country when they go on a holiday. And there are many people like her doing the same things.
The book isn’t only about Satrapi’s life though, it also tells us the history of Iran and especially about Reza Shah and the new government led by Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. This was very helpful to put the events of the story into context and to get the different opinions of all the characters in the book. However, different opinions became dangerous after the revolution when life became more restricted. One example of that is the institution of the ‘Morality police’, whose job it is to check people’s adherence to Islamic law. They dress like normal people and you can never know which neighbour or schoolmate is checking on your movements. Satrapi and her friends tried to defy those rules as much as possible but also lived in fear of that police. A simple trip to the grocery store could become dangerous if one of the dress codes is not followed. Something that can happen by accident, because at school, they dress in a headscarf, but at home or at friends places they dress however they want. A mistake is easy to make when the Western clothing is not hidden before going out. Satrapi and her friends and family are living a double life, not willing to give up the way of life they would choose for themselves.
The best thing about this book is that it tells the story of Iran from the Iranian’s perspective. It shows that not the entire country is full of religious extremists, but that there are also a lot of people who just try to live their life as peaceful as possible. However, when you only focus on the news or certain information sources it is easy to see the entire country in the light of the bad things you hear about it. Books like this, which show the reality of a country or culture of everyday people, are important because it creates understanding and empathy. When you read stories like this it turned out that people from a different country are not scary, and it shows that those people are a lot like yourself. Satrapi, like many children, needs her freedom to explore her own identity but is restricted. She struggles a lot to cope with that and that struggle makes her decide to leave Iran for Paris in the end. However, now she is an activist and most of her work is centred around Iran. Her parents raised her to love Iran and love of the culture is very clear in the book. The message of Satrapi’s book seems to be: Iran is my home and a beautiful country except for the current regime.
All of this doesn’t make this book sound like an easy or fun read, but it is. However, the book has an abstract comic style which makes it easy to read the story. There is nothing in the drawings that isn’t relevant to the story and distracts from the storylines. Also, the drawing style makes the tough parts of the book easier to cope with, without taking away from its seriousness. The style reminds of those funny comics you see in newspapers – ‘cartoons’. I liked that style because it will make it easy for new comic-book readers to get into the story. And most importantly: this book is also very funny. Humour in a book about revolution, torture and oppression sounds strange, however, Satrapi says herself that you can only complain so much about the horror in one’s life. At some point, the only thing you can do is laugh. Her family laughs a lot about the antics of the Islamic government because it is the only way they can cope and keep their spirit intact.
It is clear by now that I am a fan of this book. I am a fan of any book that helps people to connect with persons from other cultures. Especially when those people are rarely portrayed in a positive light in the media. And because of the accessible drawing style and humour, this book is suitable for teenagers and adults alike. It is the perfect book to read for anyone who wants to know a bit more about the history and the life of other people without relying on the media only. Also, it is suitable for people who don’t feel like reading complex history books to understand a bit better what’s going on in this world. There is no excuse to not read this book and broaden your mind.
Princess Frog award for teaching us to think with our heart and not with the preconceptions we have from the media and other sources.
Marjane Satrapi, The Complete Persepolis (New York, 2003)
Bella G. Bear