From Prophesy to Punk
Marjane Satrapi's alternative Iran
Persepolis: The Story of an Iranian childhood
Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
‘Image is an international language,’ Iranian graphic artist Marjane Satrapi declares. ‘When you draw a situation—someone is scared or angry or happy—it means the same thing in all cultures… It is more accessible.’1 For her, this is less comment than credo: from the outset, it is clear that Satrapi is targeting an international market. Persepolis (2004), Satrapi’s two-volume graphic memoir of her upbringing in, egress from and return to post-revolutionary Iran, contains a fiercely propagandistic streak which is advanced by her choice of the graphic medium. Certainly, her striking, tender illustrations and necessarily laconic text both work compellingly towards one end: correcting western misperceptions of Iran.
Writing from Paris in the paranoid political climate of early 2002, Satrapi finished Persepolis amidst the militant grumblings of a White House already anticipating a ‘pre-emptive liberation’ of ‘evil’ Iran. Such Western demonising is precisely what Persepolis seeks persuasively to undermine. Indeed, while critical of the Iranian theocracy, Satrapi remains a fervent patriot at heart, explicitly asserting her memoir as a counter-narrative to Western prejudice. The first volume of Persepolis is prefaced by a simple, and at times simplistic, polemic—part Iranianhistory- for-dummies (‘yet the Persian language and culture withstood these invasions, and the invaders assimilated into this strong culture, in some ways becoming Iranians themselves’) and part mission statement: ‘this old and great civilization has been mentioned mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. …I know this image to be far from the truth. I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists.’
Not surprisingly, Satrapi’s publisher L’Association endorsed her quest for wide exposure: even before publication, Persepolis was heavily marketed as the Franco-Iranian answer to Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986). Unfortunately, too many reviewers jumped on this bandwagon. To compare a graphic memoir to Maus is to a young artist what it is to label a songwriter the new Dylan, and the many critics who suggested as much do her a disservice. For one, the comparison is inapt. Perhaps because Satrapi writes within the more mainstream French graphic books industry, the text has none of Maus’ artistic self-consciousness, nor does it reflect Maus’ questioning and subversion of memoir as authentic historical record. Moreover, while Spiegelman uses the graphic format to build up intricate symbologies, Satrapi illustrates mostly at face value, employing her illustrations more photographically than metaphorically. Yet though her work is not as self-aware, sweeping, or meticulous as Spiegelman’s, or even as Joe Sacco’s (author of Palestine, to whom she’s also been compared), it is still unflinching and immensely poignant.
Raised in a left-leaning and privileged family in Tehran, Satrapi’s autobiography begins in 1979 when, ‘after a long sleep of 2500 years, the revolution has finally awakened the people’. Her upbringing was, she acknowledges, far from commonplace: after being given a comic book entitled Dialectical Materialism, her pre-adolescent self dismisses a previous calling to prophecy and assumes the mantle of Che Guevera, forming schoolyard juntas and at one point somewhat bemusedly yelling at her mother, ‘Dictator! You are the guardian of the revolution of this house!’ (Subsequently, when Allah still makes the odd appearance in her dreams, conversations become a bit awkward: ‘So you don’t want to be a prophet anymore?’ ‘Let’s talk about something else.’ ‘…You think I look like Marx?’ ‘I told you to talk about something else.’ ‘…Tomorrow the weather’s going to be nice.’)
For all of its charm and idiosyncrasies, her privileged perspective can at times seem a bit at odds with her prefatory goals: this is hardly an everyman’s story. Her Iran is a small one, a snapshot of Tehranian upper-middle class intellectuals who can afford to send their children abroad when domestic politics get too dodgy. Although she mentions that her grandfather was a prince and later served as prime minister under Reza Shah, we also don’t know why the vocal Satrapis can remain relatively unscathed both financially and politically through such tumultuous times. How little she and her family suffer by comparison is a constant, guilty theme, and Satrapi is blunt about both her guilt and her privilege. Schoolyard falsehoods of revolutionary one-upmanship (of the ‘my dad’s in prison’…‘yeah, well, my dad’s been dismembered’ ilk) are recalled with embarrassment; and years later she admits, after being arrested and fi ned yet again for alcohol consumption, that, ‘To be able to party, you had to have means.’
Progressing episodically through her childhood, the first volume of Persepolis addresses more serious and formative political occurrences than the second, albeit from a more oblique vantage point. Her perspective matures as she ages. Book one begins with childlike naivety: political events are filtered through day-to-day happenstance. This is an affective strategy, resulting in a seemingly immediate and unmediated narrative. Historical watersheds—the burning of the Rex Cinema, the US embassy hostage crisis—are nightmarishly surreal and fleeting, conjured out of schoolyard gossip and adult whispers. As her political consciousness develops, however, so too does the realism of her images. Situated in the interstices between the political and the personal, much of Persepolis’ potency derives from the disjunction between Satrapi’s plain, matter-of-fact descriptions and the often horrific events depicted. Thus, by the time the first book reaches its shattering climax—the torture and execution of her favourite uncle—so deliberately, brutally minimalist are Satrapi’s images that the inexpressibility of her grief is tangible to a wholly empathetic audience.
More retrospective and sage, book two features an older Satrapi in place of the childlike narrator of the first volume. Accordingly, although Persepolis 2 covers less epic political events, it is more wry and, for its wisdom, more touching. Sent to Vienna by parents worried about the increasing political tumult, it opens with fourteenyear- old Marjane newly-arrived at her Catholic boarding house. Not surprisingly, her culture-shock is immense, but Satrapi records it with customary irony (her comment of, ‘It’s going to be cool to go to school without a veil, to not have to beat oneself every day for the war martyrs,’ is countered by a vacuous cousin’s stare and the insightful retort of, ‘this is my raspberry-scented pen, but I have strawberry and blackberry ones, too’).She has a keen eye for caricature, and some of her finest humour—as well as her most effective and subtle political commentary—comes by deadpan depiction of the vapidity and absurdity of her European counterparts (a direct parallel, she suggests, to the ignorance and bluster informing much of Iranian culture). As a outsider, Satrapi makes friends with the marginalised, with secondary- school punks who smoke up, flip through Sartre (‘my comrades’ favourite author…I found him a little annoying’), and admire her because she’s ‘known death’; and with anarchists, whose main subversive pastimes include playing volleyball, misquoting Bakunin and doing a bit of LSD. With droll precision, she zips through her intellectual development, voraciously absorbing everything from the history of the commune (‘I concluded that the French right of this epoch were worthy of my country’s fundamentalists’) to her mother’s much-loved de Beauvoir:
Simone explained that if women peed standing up, their perception of life would change. So I tried. It ran lightly down my left leg… Seated, it was much simpler. And, as an Iranian woman, before learning to urinate like a man, I needed to learn to become a liberated and emancipated woman.
She manages this emancipation thoroughly, if fitfully. Her sexual adolescence —the ridiculousness of her first boyfriends, living with eight gay men, developing a sizeable ass—is traversed with typical retrospective self-mockery. (Early attempts at romance are candid and cringingly recognisable.) Secure finally in her sexuality, her intellect and her fiercely-guarded independence, she finishes secondary school with moderate success and, after a brief stint on the streets owing to bad luck and a drug habit, heads back to Tehran.
When she returns to Iran, however, her re-immersion is far from easy: Tehran’s streets have been renamed after the martyrs whose faces now adorn building-sized murals; her childhood friends have lost limbs in the trenches or have glammed up into husband-hunting hostesses; there is a palpable, silent tension between her parents; and her embarrassment over what she regards as the personal failures of the previous four years, particularly when contrasted with hardships of a nation, leads to a chain of uncomprehending therapists and eventually a suicide attempt. Having reached her nadir, Satrapi rallies. In a few heady pages she goes from overdose to aerobics instructor to art school candidate—no mean feat given that 40% of all university places are reserved for children of the martyrs and that any university entrant must first pass a draconian ideological exam.
The second half of Persepolis 2 is constantly backgrounded by political upheaval, and it is here, telling a personal story with political incidentals, that her autobiography is most compelling. During the early eighties, the government had imprisoned and executed so many students that by 1990, even the most educated, satellite- TV-nourished young adults avoided overt political demonstration. Revolution was relegated to the details:
It hinged on…showing your wrist, a loud laugh, having a walkman… The regime had understood that one person leaving her house while asking herself: ‘Are my trousers long enough?’ ‘Is my veil in place?’ ‘Can my makeup be seen?’ no longer asks herself: ‘Where is my freedom of speech?’ ‘My life, is it liveable?’ ‘What’s going on in the political prisons?’
Courtship itself becomes an act of rebellion: in a world of single-sex staircases (so men cannot watch women ascend), wearing the maghnaeh sexily becomes ‘a real science—you learn how to fold it so that from the side no hair is visible but from the front small locks appear’. The conservatory too is a minefi eld: some of Satrapi’s most scathing sarcasm is justifiably reserved for the hypocrisies inherent to an art institute run by a fundamentalist state. When presented with a (fully-clothed) male model, she’s chastised for looking at him directly; her incredulous query of, ‘Should I draw this man while looking at the door???!!’ is met by a terse, un-ironic, ‘Yes’. Similarly, after explaining the difficulty of studying anatomy as modelled by a woman in a chador, she dryly concludes, ‘We nevertheless learned to draw drapes.’
Perhaps inevitably, a healthy underground culture arises amongst her college friends. Behind firmly closed doors, they pose for each other without inhibition; hidden satellite dishes broadcast CNN; drinking, smoking, sex and (tragically) Bon Jovi are de rigueur. And while such minor licenses at times have devastating consequences— in three wordless pages of beautifully austere silhouettes, a friend falls to his death in a moonlit flight from police—the parallels she draws between her own life and her readers’ are apparent. The same vanities, the same insouciance. ‘The more time passed,’ she concludes with a newcomer’s relief, ‘the more I became conscious of the contrast between the official representation of my country and the real life of the people, the one that went on behind the walls.’
To that end, while Satrapi makes an effort to show most sides to an argument—once even depicting a mullah sympathetically—for the most part hers is a narrative infused with disbelief, irony and rage both at those who perpetuate Iran’s fundamentalism and at those who judge it from afar. Her refusal to mention any Ayatollah is a pointed act of resistance – although it restricts an already limited perspective and political salience – that echoes her opening plea for ‘an entire nation…[to] not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists’. This is obviously fair, but were she to widen her scope to include information about these extremists, who must surely number more than a ‘few’, it might make her account seem a bit less one-sided and narrow without compromising her politics too severely.
Had she stuck to straightforward memoir, it would have served her educational aims just as effectively. Unfortunately, on the rare occasion when Satrapi does interrupt her autobiography with overt polemic, it typically takes the form of condescendingly didactic asides. Obviously intended for myopic post-9/11 westerners, these elementary history lessons have all of the realism of the Marx- Descartes conversation in her Dialectical Materialism primer. Th e odd footnote is understandable, perhaps even useful (an asterisk at the bottom of a cell noting that ‘the term “mujahideen” isn’t specific to Afghanistan. It means a combatant’); and the occasional lapse into clumsy platitude forgivable (‘besides, fear has always been a drivingforce behind all dictators’ repression’). But her already clunky dialogue exacerbates such abrasive and unnatural moralising—take, for example, the following assessment cleverly camouflaged by familial conversation:
Marjane: The western media also fights against us. That’s where our reputation as fundamentalists and terrorists comes from! Mom: You’re right. Between one’s fanaticism and the other’s disdain, it’s hard to know which side to choose. Personally, I hate Saddam and I have no sympathy for the Kuwaitis, but I hate just as much the cynicism of the allies who call themselves ‘liberators’ while they’re there for the oil.Cue visible flinch. Surely if the redressing of balances is her goal, hard-hitting reportage—interviews with those who endured Iraq’s US-sponsored assault, or even the straightforward citation of statistics—would be more effective. Instead, Satrapi mounts the soapbox and damn well pummels her point home.2 This occasional pedantic streak is unfortunate, as the humour and frankness of her story go much further towards humanising Iran.
Fortunately, her illustrations amply compensate for her prose’s heavy-handedness. Striking and brutal, her monochromatic, largely untextured images ably evoke the oppressiveness of the Islamic Republic and particularly its strictures of attire (women are often reduced to silhouettes, opaque and anonymous). And yet out of these austere lines, she coaxes an extraordinary amount of facial expression: distinguishing from a morass of veils and shadow the shades of each character’s personality is something Satrapi micromanages down to the dimple.
Though her images tend more toward the literal than the metaphorical, Persepolis’ dream sequences and moments of crisis (the onset of the Iran-Iraq war, her departure from Tehran, the torture of her uncle) often edge towards the jagged surrealism of French artist and acknowledged forebear David B. (Epileptic). On these occasions, Satrapi’s usually pared-down illustrations become richly and widely allusive, pointedly commingling western tradition with two and half centuries of Persian culture. The pietà is invoked twice: once poignantly, as her mother faints into her father’s arms as she boards the plane for Vienna, and once ironically, a woman in a chador clutching a martyr in military uniform; many of the textures of Achaemenian/Sasanian art reappear in the background of dream sequences and epic histories; and the Islamic crescent moon rises at her lowest points with a sarcastic twinkle. Brilliantly, her single-cell delineation of ‘2500 years of tyranny and submission’ is rendered as bas-relief pastiche, with Mongolian cavalry toe-to-heel with sunglass-clad Marxists and Uncle Sam. As Cyrus the Great gazes at the scene in comic despair, Satrapi bringing history full circle with tongue-in-cheek wit. Clearly, she’s still a patriot at heart: this incarnation of Iranian governance, she suggests repeatedly, is merely the latest in a cyclical history—there is something intrinsic to Iranian national character that withstands superficial ideologies. The ruins of Persepolis thus provide her with a perfect metaphor: an icon intriguing to and beloved of the western tourist, it is also a symbol of both imperial transience and the tenacity of Persian nationalism.
Ultimately, the graphic medium suits her purposes well for several reasons: for one, her prose is neither eloquent nor original enough to stand on its own. For another, the restrictions of her pared-down illustrations suit the absolutes and ironies of both Iran and Europe, and subtly draw parallels between the two that in straight text would lack nuance. Moreover, the graphic format permits her to oscillate between journalistic realism and solipsistic whimsy far more than would a more traditional autobiographical format. Finally, as she acknowledges, it renders the subject less serious, more sympathetic, more accessible—all desirable traits for a woman seeking to change the world’s mind.
Of course, now, in 2005, her prefatory mission might seem a bit less urgent. Iranian/Western political relations are inching away from the messianic bellicosity of Bush’s infamous ‘axis of evil’ speech and towards grudging diplomacy, as in the case of the recent Nuclear Proliferation talks. And given Europe’s recent inundation by Iranian cultural exports—the bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni, the widespread acclaim of new films by Kiarostami, Maghsoudlou, and Maryam Keshavarz—Satrapi’s zeal to introduce Iranian counter-culture to the west might seem a bit overstated. Nevertheless, her endemic humour, arresting illustration and the comic-book format itself (‘People don’t take it so seriously,’ she admits) effectively off set the moralising gravitas of her prologue. Certainly, Satrapi’s autobiography is so likeable that despite a didactic strain it remains an engaging, compelling read. While Persepolis’ feistiness and creativity pay tribute as much to Satrapi herself as to contemporary Iran, if her aim is to humanise her homeland, this amiable, sardonic and very candid memoir couldn’t do a better job.
1. Interview with Dave Welch, 17.9.2004 (http://www.powells.com/authors/satrapi.html). 2. Of course, if nuance and taste are so lacking in our own critical vocabulary that Persepolis is deemed a ‘stylish, clever and moving weapon of mass destruction’ by the Telegraph, perhaps Satrapi’s within her rights to underestimate us.