04 March, 2012

Review: Persepolis, The Story of A Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Last night I was discussing Habibi and it's affection for rape. Passages of Habibi put me in mind of contrasting passages from Persepolis. There is a scene with Satrapi's mother early in the revolution. she is accosted by a group of young men who threaten her with rape. Late in the book a young refugee is raped and executed. Both of these events happen offscreen. The effect of the events on Satrapi's family is the focus, not the events themselves. There is no loving close up of violence against women. Any close up is on the revulsion and fear that violence created. Two panels of violence's aftermath is more realistic than anything in Habibi. Women live in the constant shadow of sexual violence in a way men, although often victims themselves, do not. While Habibi used this violence frequently, in Persepolis it is barely mentioned but far more devastating.

Persepolis is one of the gold standards in graphic memoir for a reason. It might seem unfair to treat it as a fictionalized book but the power of it's real life events further illuminate the failure of imagination present in sexualized fiction. Satrapi comes completely alive in her book. We know who she is, we know the people around her, we care about their fates. A young child when the Shah is overthrown, Satrapi travels through her country's journey from a modern state to a repressed region. (Given that we will likely be at war with Iran before the end of the year, Persepolis becomes even more important.)

As a young girl, Satrapi has a personal relationship with Allah. She is educated in French schools and lives a life of comfortable affluence with her own servant (slave) and material comfort. As her country falls into disquiet and revolution, so does she. Marx slowly replaces God in her dreams, her goal of being The Prophet is replaced by dreams of revolution. Her parents march in the streets until the Shah is deposed and victory seems at hand. Satrapi struggles to make sense of the conflicting revolutions. War with Iraq arrives as long lost uncles and parents stream out of the prisons. The religious right scoops it's own political prisoners up for torture or execution and the veil is imposed. Western schools are closed and segregated. The cultural revolution isn't going the way her family intended. Classmates disappear through emigration or death. Even in her protected bubble of wealth and connections Satrapi is forced to confront the millions killed for the protection of political powers. Her own small rebellions, her refusal to relinquish everything about her former life lead her to a crossroads. Satrapi can either embrace radicalism or she can embrace exile.

When Neda Soltan was killed in 2009 many Westerners thought surely that would bring down the regime. Our Persian friends had a clearer view. They knew, as young Satrapi would have, that she was just one of the many. Yet another girl killed in the name of power, in the name of a narrow view of faith that must be upheld above all reason. In the early days of the revolution Satrapi's uncle thought that religious radicalism could not last. He believed that the men of faith would return to their temples and leave the daily running of the land to a new idealistic democracy. (Obviously, he misjudged that one. A cautionary tale for women in the current American political climate.) With so many books like Habibi, Aaron & Ahmed and Holy Terror on the market it is a gift to read Persepolis again. When we demonize  the people of Iraq or Iran instead of the institutions holding them captive, we demonize young Satrapi. Read Persepolis; The Story of a Childhood and think about who the enemies really are.


  1. Excellent points. It ought to be required reading right now.

  2. I know, right? Iran gives me such a headache. The one thing I have learned is that exiled Persians love their country perhaps even more than exiled Cubans. I wish all the solutions didn't seem to be "kill a lot of people" no matter who is speaking.