Book Review: Persepolis
Iran is famous for its civil wars, radicalistic government, and pistachio, apparently. But the world fails to be empathetic or even pay a little attention to how the tumultuous decades of the old Persia affect its citizens’ perceptions of religion and leadership, and at the same time, rush them into making decisions that they never thought about.
“I was a westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the West. I had no identity.”
Persepolis is a word derived from Ancient Greek which means the Persian city. At least until 1935, Persia remained Persia. But when the Pahlavi dynasty took over the Government, the Persian land was renamed Iran. The book Persepolis, therefore, depicted the changing hands of power pre-and post- land renaming. Persepolis was told from the memory and reality of Marjane Satrapi, now a graphic novelist, cartoonist, and film director living in France. It is a first-hand experience of Satrapi from when she was a 10-year-old girl living in Tehran when the Iranian revolution transpired.
Persepolis tells the harshest of reality that Iranians had to endure, which brought to the unwelcome decision by many Governments, including the United States of America to ban the book. Its vivid portrayal of the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty and the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran ruled by Ayatollah Khomeini can lead to an array of opinions of the book’s purpose. While many would consider the main takeaway from Persepolis is the radical, oppressive Government that merely thinks about power and ideology, there is another layer to Persepolis that should have been clear and even widely discussed. How much can a radical act transform one’s perception of something – to the point where even what should have been rights are simply viewed as wrong because of the absence of choices?
Satrapi does nothing other than being truthful about what she saw, heard, experienced, felt during her childhood, teenage, and young adult lives in Iran. Even if you disagree with how she thinks, you must try to understand why she thinks the way she thinks.
When the Islamic Republic gained control of the country in 1979, the schools were closed for two years because the new Government was working on changing the curriculum to satisfy their interpretation of ‘Islam’. Every school became Madrasa and all the bilingual schools permanently shut down. Satrapi was not happy because she used to study in a French school which she believed to be the height of her education experience. But then, in 1980, she, like all the other girls and women, was forced to wear the veil. Little Satrapi, written by Mature Satrapi, thought: “we didn’t really like to wear the veil, especially since we didn’t understand why we had to”.
Even for someone who lived in a Marxist household, Satrapi did not reason with the Islamic Government’s opinion that bilingual schools are symbols of capitalism. Instead of releasing Iranians from the dictatorship of the Shah, they were forced to worship and value things that they do not properly understand. A choice is no longer in the cards for the Iranians. While during the Shah reign they could not speak their mind freely because of fear of being imprisoned, during the Islamic Republic, they could not even represent their true self and had to hide every time they wanted to be liberated.
Satrapi’s parents advised her to move to Europe when she was 14, saying that “we feel that it’s better for you to be far away and happy than close by and miserable.” Satrapi moved to Vienna, but she did not acquire that happiness that should have been an instant achievement, given that she was living in a freer country. But her identity as an Iranian remained and it affected how people looked at her. The stigmatisation against someone who was born and raised in a country that had undergone or linked to radical movements is depicted vividly in Persepolis. It’s almost as if when you come from a warzone then you are automatically a terrorist.
Satrapi terminated her life in Vienna because she did not feel a sense of belonging in a foreign place where her attachment to radical values was frequently being questioned by people around her. She was unable to delete a depiction of identity that was not even hers.
Persepolis brings you to the land of the Persians through its graphic portrayal of the backstory of the Pahlavi dynasty and the Islamic revolution. At some point when reading it, you might even think as if you were Marji (Satrapi’s nickname), who met her Uncle Anoosh – the man who hid in the Soviet Union because of his political beliefs, the political prisoner during the Shah’s Regime who was then executed by the Islamic Regime. You would feel as if you were the one going into the black market, buying cassettes, posters of the bands that you love, all the funny things that you could do when you were that unfree.
Persepolis showcases how living in a city does not automatically mean you are granted liberty. Life in Tehran and rural areas of Iran are equal – equally oppressive. The latest data suggested that over 50% of Iranians are living in poverty. The change that was promised at the beginning of the Islamic revolution was and is a sham. But it is not just money, or wealth, or resources that oppressive Governments take away from people; it is also their ability to think clearly without any bias from the cruel leadership that forces piety. For all the political sensitivities that Persepolis demonstrates, it is also a book that tells us what happens when one legislates morality.
This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 01 Issue 01 — September 2021