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Satrapi's book showed me a more accurate and more human picture of Iran and of Iranians

By Cathryn Clarke
September 12, 2003
The Iranian

Marjane Satrapi's recently published comic novel Perspolis tells her story of growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and the Iran/Iraq war [See excerpt: "Days of our lives"]. Reading Perspolis gives those of us who know little about Iran a glimpse of what life is like there. Satrapi's historical summaries have been criticized for "lacking insight". More important, however, is her portrayal of Iranians and of the struggles they faced, and are still facing, in post-revolutionary Iran. 

Although Canada is considered a multicultural country there is still little intermixing between Canadians who were born here and Canadians who have immigrated here form other parts of the world. Consequently, our perceptions of other countries and cultures are still largely formed by what we see in the media. In a time when more and more media outlets are being controlled by fewer people, these perceptions are often one-dimensional and rarely accurate.

Unfortunately, our perceptions of Iran and Iranians are often negative--linked to fundamentalism and terrorism. Obviously, this problem is not confined to Canada. In fact, Satrapi cites these prevalent negative perceptions as her motivation for writing Perspolis. In her introduction she states, "...this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. This is why writing Perspolis was so important to me." As a fifth-generation Canadian who has limited knowledge of the history or current situation in Iran, Satrapi's book did, indeed, show me a more accurate and more human picture of Iran and of Iranians. 

Perspolis is told through the eyes of ten-year-old Marjane who is struggling to understand the changes occuring in her country as a result of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Confusion is a sentiment that permeates the book. As a child, Marjane is puzzled by the sudden and contradictory changes. Before the revolution she went to a French, non-religious, co-ed school. After the revolution there were no more bilingual schools and boys and girls were separated.

Upon returning to school after the revolution, Marjane and her classmates are told to rip-out all photographs of the Shah from their school books. As Marjane notes, this same teacher taught them that the Shah was chosen by God. For a ten-year-old these sudden changes and obvious contradictions are difficult to understand. For the Canadian reader, it is important to note that someone as young as Marjane Satrapi can remember pre-revolution Iran. The current Islamic laws that govern Iranians are just over 20 years old. Fundamentalism has not always ruled in Iran and the people are obliged to follow the Islamic laws whether they agree or not.

As Marjane gets older, life continues to be confusing. Because she is the daughter of leftist, intellectual parents, the ideology taught and practiced inside the house are in direct opposition with the imposed way of living outside of the house. This kind of double life leads to a certain level of secrecy and paranoia. Marjane and her family must be careful to hide their "inside" life--which includes dancing and wine making-- from new neighbours as they don't know whether they are liberal or conservative.

As Marjane becomes more independent and rebellious, her parents are forced to realize the potential danger in this contradiction. Like all parents, they want to teach her their own values and beliefs. But, because these beliefs are in opposition with those imposed by a strict government, it may be dangerous if Marjane acts inappropriately or attempts to defend them. Like many Iranian parents at that time, they chose to send Marjane to Europe to avoid this danger.

By portraying this confusion and the obstacles of daily living in Iran, Satrapi succeeds in creating a fuller, more three-dimensional image of Iranians. In effect, she humanizes a one-dimensional stereotype and forces the western reader to acknowledge that not all Iranians are Islamic fundamentalists. Just like in Canada, or anywhere else, you have people who are very religious, people who aren't, people who drink, people who don't, hypocrites, intellectuals, leftists, conservatives and so on. In fact, the personalities in Perspolis are very open, very intellectual and are not in agreement with the Islamic regime.

Although one of Satrapi's goals is to educate the western reader on Iran and Iranians, Perspolis seems to have a message for Iranian readers as well. Marjane's preoccupation with the difference between social classes is an important element in the novel. Marjane's maid, Mehri, is more like a sister than hired help. The two girls spend countless hours together. When Mehri falls in love with the boy next door, it is Marjane who writes the love-letters and facilitates the relationship.

In the end, however, this relationship is doomed because, as Marjane's mother says, "in this country you must stay within your own social class." It is her confusion and sadness for Mehri's predicament that helps the young Marjane understand why she feels so ashamed of her father's cadillac--the difference between social classes. Just as Marjane's story allows us to better understand Iranians in general, Satrapi's heartfelt account of Marjane and Mehri's relationship reveals the difficulty and unfairness of being poor in Iran. 

Perspolis is, at once, informative, funny, touching and sad. It is interesting and entertaining for Iranians and non-Iranians alike. At a time when so much media attention is being given to Iran, this glimpse into life in Iran is very welcome and much needed.

Marjane Satrapi lives in Paris and is currently working on Perspolis 2 >>> Arts & Literature forum

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Persepolis
The Story of a Childhood
By Marjane Satrapi
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