Table of Contents
- Techniques and Metalanguage
- Essay 1: How does Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood explore what it means to live in fear and oppression?
- Essay 2：Marji’s grandmother says: “Always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.” To what extent does Marji follow her grandmother’s advice?
- Essay 3: Discuss how history is depicted in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood.
- Essay 4: “There were two kinds of women.” ‘Persepolis argues that were one of the primary targets of the fundamentalist regime.’ To what extent do you agree?
- Essay 5: How does Marjane Satrapi use her illustrations to effect in Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood?
- Essay 6: ’Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood shows us that in authoritarian regimes there is no hope of resistance.’ To what extent do you agree?
- Essay 7: What role do Marji’s parents play in her development as a person?
- Essay 8: Discuss the role of the minor characters in Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood is the first of Marjane Satrapi’s two-part graphic novel memoirs of her youth and young womanhood. It is set during and in the immediate aftermath of one of the 20th Century’s most important incidents – the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The graphic novel explores this tumultuous period through the eyes of the young Marjane (frequently referred to as Marji), who must grapple with adolescence whilst also trying to make sense of the rapidly changing world around her.
Satrapi contextualises her story within the vast history of Iran, from the ancient cultures of Elam and Persia through to the modern day. The memoir takes its title from the Greek name of the ancient capital of Persia (Perses = Persia, Polis = city). The young Marjane has a powerful pride of her country’s ancient past, and as a child she is inspired by ancient Zoroastrian festivals and the words of the ancient prophet of Zoroastrianism, Zarathustra. Zoroastrianism was replaced by Islam as the dominant religion of the region following the Arab conquests from the 7th Century CE onwards, although there are still Kurdish minorities spread throughout Syria, Turkey and Iraq who follow a modern incarnation of the ancient faith. Satrapi repeatedly references the distant past in order to contextualise the events of the memoir and demonstrate that the version of Iran which emerged after the revolution did not reflect a return to a traditional or “pure” cultural tradition.
The background to the Iranian Revolution is complex and contested. Its immediate causes were probably economic, but there were further-reaching factors. The Shah who governed at the time relied on force and brutality to keep his subjects in line. Further, he pursued a secularist and pro-Western policy agenda which many felt was contrary to Iranian culture. The Shah owed his position to a coup d’état in 1953 orchestrated by Western powers who desired safe access to Iranian markets. This was a crucial reason for general anti-regime sentiment. The Shah pursued dramatic land reforms which may have helped create an industrial urban class, who could be swayed by socialist ideas, and an educated intelligentsia (such as the Satrapis) who also opposed his dictatorship. For many other Iranians, his (often extremely draconian) attempts to secularise the country were seen as an attack on their culture. Widespread discontent found a voice in the radical Ayatollah Khomeini (Ayatollah is a religious title) who returned from an exile imposed by the regime. Eventually, after widespread protests and street violence, the Shah fled the country. A popular vote installed the hard-core Shiite Islamist Ayatollah Khomeini into power, and he quickly began exterminating democratic or Marxist opposition groups, abolishing the rights gained by women under the Shah’s modernising reforms, and shutting down the free press.
In Persepolis, these events are experienced from the perspectives of the Satrapis, a progressive and secular family who believe in equality between the sexes and the classes. They are friendly with their Jewish neighbours, uncommon in a time of extremely hostile Jewish/Islamic relations, attempt (unsuccessfully) to teach their maid to read, drink alcohol on occasion, and are generally opposed to the new regime. They view the establishment of the Islamic Republic as a betrayal of the “leftist” ideals of the Revolution, in which they were active. The Satrapis, in common with many opposition groups and Western powers, drastically underestimate the competence and brutal efficiency of the Islamic regime, initially and repeatedly asserting that the fundamentalists are powerful but incapable of governing. They live in a fraught and complex ideological position. They are passionate defenders of Western notions of reason, freedom of the individual, freedom of religion or irreligion, democratic rule and equality between the sexes. However, they are under no illusions about the hypocritical foreign policy of countries such as America and Britain, and disdain “modern imperialism.”
For the young Marjane, this relationship finds its manifestation in Western popular culture. She listens to Iron Maiden, Michael Jackson and Kim Wilde. The memoir makes numerous references to the phenomenon of punk, a musical genre and lifestyle which erupted in the late 1970s in Britain (in bands such as the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Clash and the Slits), America (the Ramones, Black Flag, X) and Australia (the Saints, Radio Birdman, the Birthday Party, the Go-Betweens). Punk music is characterised by rebellious and ironic lyrics (see “Anarchy in the UK” by the Pistols) and extremely loud, aggressive, guitar-driven music. Ideologically it emphasised rebellion, anti-authoritarianism, equality and personal freedom. Naturally, therefore, it is especially attractive to a free-thinking young woman in a theocratic regime such as Marjane Satrapi. It is also especially reviled by members of the Guardians of the Revolution, the religious and moral police established under the Islamic Republic.
Persepolis explores the fractures and contradictions in Iranian society with nuance and compassion, and with a degree of innocence thanks to the youth of its protagonist. It was critically acclaimed upon release, with commentators pointing to the stylish illustrations as an especially effective way of communicating the story, and adapted by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud into an award-winning film in 2007. In 2019 it was listed as one of the hundred best novels of the 21st Century by the Guardian newspaper.
Techniques and Metalanguage
Persepolis is a graphic novel, and much of the meaning of the text is thus generated through images. Satrapi varies her panel angles from long, mid-range and short in order to convey dramatic or emotional meaning. On page 42, for example, Satrapi conveys the jubilation following the resignation of the Shah in a long crowd scene, stacking revellers vertically to create a sense of liveliness and crowdedness. By contrast, the very first panel is of Marjane alone, staring at the reader and occupying the majority of the panel. There are often close-ups of this sort when Marjane directly addresses the reader, perhaps relaying a dictate of the regime, or providing context.
Satrapi makes use of various sorts of transitions, of theme or setting or style, to create connections or highlight juxtapositions. For example, page 102 transitions from a scene of carnage and devastation, as Satrapi relates the fate of thousands of boys lured onto the battlefields, to an image of her at a party, dressed as a punk, and “looking sharp.” The contrast highlights the disparate worlds of Iran; the poor kids who die in droves in battle, and the rich kids, who dance and party. Connected to the process of transitioning is the use of borders. The borders of panels in a graphic novel define the scene. There are moments in the text where Satrapi eliminates the borders of her slides – such as on page 51, as Siamak recounts the tortures meted out against political prisoners. The graphic images of torture are borderless, suggesting the impact that these descriptions have on Marjane; they transcend their physical and temporal setting and become a part of her life.
The images of torture described above, along with much of the text, are in a fairly graphic and literal style. Many sections of the books are treated in a much more stylised manner. The depiction of the burning Rex Cinema, for example, reimagines the burning victims in a ghostly, spiritual form. Similarly, the full-page panel depicting the Satrapis’ holiday to Spain and Italy is a swirling mix of images of those countries, through which the Satrapis fly serenely on a magic carpet. The pictorial style thus reflects the imagination of Marjane as much as it does physical reality; her depiction of Anoosh with a halo is perhaps the clearest example, along with her imagined conversations with God. These more fanciful depictions often serve as metaphors. The death of Anoosh leaves Marjane feeling “lost” and with no “bearings.” Satrapi conveys the sense of loss by drawing herself floating through space. Another occasion in which the content of the memoir is so extreme that it cannot be done justice by literal depiction is the moment when Marjane spots the dismembered arm of her dead friend in the wreckage of her home. The panel is black, as Satrapi explains that no scream could do justice to what she felt – and neither, the image implies, could any depiction.
Time is not treated in a linear fashion in Persepolis. When Satrapi recalls an earlier event, she may draw a panel depicting that earlier event alongside the contemporary ones. She starts her story in 1980, but then leaps back to her early childhood. This helps place the veil as a central image of the text. It also acts to foreshadow the direction of the Revolution, creating the impression of a cyclical process – as befits the word “revolution,” which in its literal meaning implies a fully circular motion.
Finally, Satrapi blends a variety of styles in her work in order to reflect the variety of influences on Iranian culture, and its subsequent influence on her life. Depictions of the Shah often feature ancient Persian reliefs of kings and warriors, depicting his attempt to revive an ancient form of Iranian culture. At other points Satrapi employs stylised, ornamental swirls to suggest calligraphy. These stylistic variations help build a sense of history behind the text, placing Satrapi’s life in a rich and ancient context.
Repression and Rebellion
Persepolis charts a transition in Iranian society between two equally repressive regimes. The first is the Shah’s, who rose to power in a Western-backed coup decades earlier. The Shah’s regime relied on violent repression to maintain order. When the Revolution of 1979 erupted – unexpectedly – Iranians took to the streets and demanded change. At first the Shah attempts to contain these demands for democracy through violence. For example, he burns down the Rex Cinema (it has never been proven who exactly burnt the cinema down, but there is a reasonable chance that the attack occurred as depicted in Persepolis), killing around 400 people. Violence only strengthens the resolve of his opposition, however; the night after the conflagration at the cinema Marjane’s parents agree that demonstrations must escalate: “We can’t let things like that happen.” The revolutionary fervour rubs off on young Marji, who attempts to join a demonstration with her maid, Mehri – to her parents’ outrage. They had joined the demonstration in secret, and accidently picked a day characterised by even more violent repression – “Black Friday.”
Characters express optimism about the Revolution as it unfolds. Ebi Satrapi excitedly pronounces that “After a long sleep of 2500 years, the Revolution has finally awakened the people.” The Shah eventually flees and Marjane describes scenes of jubilation as the country had the biggest celebration of its entire history” and her mother proclaims that “the Devil has left” the country. At first, their hope appears to be vindicated: 3000 political prisoners, including old friends and relatives of the Satrapis, are released. However, the reader is already aware that the Revolution will take a darker turn, because the memoir makes use of a non-linear timeline and opens in 1980, in a religious theocracy in which girls and women must wear the veil. One of the themes of repression which begins to emerge in Persepolis is the fundamental similarities between repressive regimes, even if they appear to be ideologically disparate. The chapter entitled ‘The Sheep’ marks the beginning of the Revolution’s transition from anti-authoritarian freedom fight to repressive Islamic theocracy. The liberal, educated observers like Anoosh and Ebi are taken by surprise; Ebi is alarmed at “how ignorant our people are” and Anoosh falls back on Marxist-Leninism to explain what he hopes is a temporary advantage to the religious right: “But the religious leaders don’t know how to govern […] That’s just what Lenin explained in ‘The State and the Revolution.’” Soon afterwards, Mohsen is found dead and Siamak flees with his surviving family (his sister is murdered by the regime) disguised as sheep. Satrapi hints that the real sheep of the chapter may in fact have been the educated and complacent intellectuals, who failed to grasp how successfully the theocrats could gain power.
From here on the book is largely an account of surviving under a new repressive regime. The transition between regimes is seamless. As Marjane recounts: “And that is how all the former revolutionaries became the sworn enemies of the Republic.” Anoosh is executed, universities are closed down, wearing the veil becomes mandatory, dissidence is met with violence and a fully-fledged cultural revolution is instigated. Violence becomes the regime’s deterrent of choice, and speaking out is made too dangerous to contemplate. Thus, it is through smaller, private gestures of rebellion that personal freedom and identity is expressed. Alcohol is outlawed, along with parties, but the Satrapis and their friends risk awful punishment. Celebrating with other people is innate to humanity, and without these opportunities to relax and express themselves, people argue that “we might as well just bury ourselves now.” The Satrapis, being a liberal and partially Westernised family, enjoy illicit wine – although they are almost found out and punished horrifically.
For Marjane, it is Western popular culture that allows her a rebellious outlet. She buys covert tapes of western groups and begins collecting an incredibly eclectic array of musical passions and influences: she listens to Iron Maiden, Camel, Kim Wilde and Michael Jackson, and dresses as a punk rocker. She becomes more rebellious, skipping school at one point (to her mother’s rage), stealing (and failing to enjoy) a cigarette, and arguing with her teachers. Her parents even devise ingenious techniques for smuggling rock posters from Turkey into Iran. Satrapi writes of the Iran she knows, the one behind the headlines which depict a fearful theocratic menace, and depicts the many little rebellions which occur behind closed doors.
Knowledge and Learning
The Islamic Republic is depicted in Persepolis as a regime which relies in part on disinformation and ignorance in order to control its population. Control of universities and schools is thus essential, and the memoir features many instances in which Marjane’s school curriculum is suddenly changed to suit political needs, or when she feels compelled to challenge a blatant lie from her teachers. The universities are temporarily closed throughout Iran; the relevant minister claims that all syllabuses are somehow “decadent” and that it is thus “better to have no students at all than to educate future imperialists.”
The Satrapi family, accordingly, are passionate believers in the importance of knowledge and education, which they see as crucial tools against authoritarianism. “To enlighten me,” Marjane recounts, “they bought books.” She reads up on radical history and European political philosophy. Her father does his best to ensure she has a working knowledge of recent Iranian history so that she can contextualise and better understand the era in which she lives. Ebi is a role model for Satrapi in this regard. His most active role in the streets during the Revolution is to record it for posterity, to collect evidence and to spread knowledge. He does this through photographing the turmoil on the streets. Satrapi makes it clear that this is not an easy or safe option – it is “strictly forbidden” and “he had even been arrested once but escaped at the last minute” (29). Ebi sees the widespread acceptance of the Islamic Regime’s suspiciously high percentage of the vote in the elections following the Shah’s abdication as indicative of “ignorance,” and so he and Taji work to ensure that Marjane is better prepared than many to face the deceptions of power. Marjane is somewhat confused by her mother’s fury at her bludging from school, labelling her a “dictator.” Taji, however, understands that “now is the time for learning,” reminding Marjane that education is not a chore, and nor does it merely give her an advantage over others. Rather, it is a matter of life and death; if Marjane intends to “survive” under the regime, she must smarten up.
Education can bring its own threats to liberty, however. Marjane finds it increasingly difficult to listen to or obey her teachers as it becomes more and more obvious that they merely preach propaganda. She is expelled from one school, and at the next gets into a passionate argument with her teacher. The teacher blithely assures her students that “Since the Islamic Republic was founded, we no longer have political prisoners” (144). Marjane is outraged at this bare-faced lie and challenges her: “We’ve gone from 3000 prisoners under the Shah to 300,000 under your regime… How dare you lie to us like that?” This lands her in trouble with the school, and her father proudly comments that “she gets that from her uncle.” Taji, however, has a slightly more realist outlook: “Maybe you’d like her to end up like him too? Executed?” Marjane finds herself in a dangerous situation for a precocious teenager; her parents have educated her so that she can tell a lie from the truth. However, that knowledge is inherently dangerous in a society which punishes, with extreme violence, the acquisition of knowledge that does not suit their political interests. The Satrapis recognise the danger in which Marjane could so easily find herself and so they decide to privilege her education over other considerations. She needs to learn somewhere where ideas are free to flourish, and where it is safe to flex her audacious and sharply intelligent mind. Marjane’s parents thus decide to send her to study in Austria. She is only fourteen; but as her mother asserts, “above all, I trust your education.”
Gender and Patriarchy
The fundamentalist interpretation of Islam which characterises the Islamic Republic is an extraordinarily repressive and violent kind – especially towards women. The struggle to control women is introduced immediately, in the very first panel of the graphic novel. Marjane is depicted, staring at the reader, in a veil. Satrapi explains that there was a “cultural revolution” which swept through Iran and resulted in the veil being made mandatory. We learn that Taji had to dye her hair and change her appearance after being photographed protesting against the imposition of the veil. The panel depicting her walking, face down, with sunglasses and a scarf, through the interrogating gazes of bearded fundamentalists, is a frighteningly literal depiction of the scrutiny women in the regime are subjected to. Back at school, Marji and her friends also resent the veil, and Taji is shocked at how unrecognisable the veil makes her on her passport photo. It is an imposition which becomes symbolic of the attack against freedom throughout the novel.
It was imposed, in part, by a male, patriarchal order – but the religious zealots determined to control the bodies of women were not exclusively male. Indeed, when Satrapi recounts the streets being full of protests for and against the veil, the pro-veil crowd are depicted entirely as being women. Similarly, it is the women’s branch of the Revolutionary Guard who accost Marjane as she walks through the streets dressed as a punk. They police her clothing and threaten to whisk her away to their dreaded Headquarters. “Lower your scarf, you little whore!” one of the Guardians snarls.
The sexualised language employed by the Guardians is borrowed from their male counterparts, and is typical of the manner in which women are regulated under the regime. This can make parts of Persepolis very difficult to read. The fate of Niloufar, an eighteen-year-old Communist who falls foul of the regime, marks the extent to which women have become chattel: she is “married” – that is, raped under the guise of a ceremony – and executed, and a pathetic dowry equivalent to five dollars sent to her relatives. Marjane’s own mother is accosted by thugs for not wearing the veil, and again the language is that of sexual control and violence: “they said that women like me should be pushed up against a wall and fucked, and then thrown in the garbage.” Such scenes of course also highlight the hypocrisy, which would be absurdly amusing if it wasn’t so horrific, of the mentality of the regime: this sort of bestial violence is justified because without veils women are allegedly not “civilised” enough.
It is not just physical violence which restricts women under the new regime, however. More insidious but just as destructive is the limiting of opportunities. When Marjane learns of the university closures, she is distraught. She will not be able to follow in the footsteps of her hero, Marie Curie: “Misery! At the age that Marie Curie first went to France to study, I’ll probably have ten children.” It is this imagined fate which makes Marjane’s move to Austria so vitally necessary.
The Iran-Iraq War of the early 1980s forms the backdrop to much of the first part of Persepolis. The war is ignited when Iraq invades; it is prolonged, however, by Iran, for the purposes of control. When the fighting begins, Marjane is all fire and brimstone: “We have to bomb Baghdad!” she cries. Her belligerence is soon tempered by the growing realisation that Iran is depending on the war to rally its people around the new regime. Belligerent slogans are painted on walls; the (theoretically) banned Iranian national anthem is broadcast, and the girls in Marjane’s school are compelled to engage in bizarre ritualistic mourning. The newspapers devote pages to the swelling ranks of martyrs. Iran suffers heavy casualties, but has a vast population to draw upon. Their techniques disturb Marjane. Young boys are sent a key – representing the key to Paradise available to martyrs slain in battle – and then enlisted. Shahab explains exactly how the military whips these inexperienced boys into a frenzy:
They come from the poor areas, you can tell… first they convince them that the afterlife is even better than Disneyland, then they put them in a trance with all their songs.
The result is “absolute carnage.” A peace is actually offered, with generous terms, by Iraq, and Saudi Arabia offers to pay for reparations. However, “the survival of the regime depended on the war,” and so Iran refused the “imposed peace” and commit to more unnecessary bloodshed. The regime becomes more repressive, and mass executions become common. Persepolis lays bare the reality of sabre-rattling regimes; their real enemy is usually their own people. As Ebi chastises his warmongering daughter, “The real Islamic invasion has come from our own government.”
Family and Childhood
The first part of Persepolis is entitled The Story of a Childhood and that, primarily, is what it is. Marjane’s family has an immense impact on her life, providing her with the freedom and self-awareness to develop a strong individual personality. Her childhood is a mixture of competing impulses: “Deep down I was very religious but as a family we were very modern and avant-garde.” When as a young girl she decides she is destined to be a Prophet of Islam, her parents angrily defend her against the worries of her teachers. They buy her books and encourage her always to think freely and critically. Ultimately they make an extremely painful decision: to send Marjane away from them to Austria. As hard as it is, they do this out of love: they hope Austria will be safer and freer for her.
Marjane must grow up quickly in a world which does not leave much room for the innocence of childhood. Before she is fourteen, she has her parents threatened, must flee a violent demonstration, has an uncle executed and a friend’s house bombed. This last, an incident which kills the entire household of her neighbours, is described in a single, black panel: “No scream in the world could have relieved my suffering and my anger.” Marjane grows up experiencing traumas that children should not have to experience. Although she clashes with her parents frequently, she does find solace in the stability of her family and their connection to the past, pledging to Anoosh that she will never forget the suffering of the Satrapis. The final advice Marjane is given from various family members is to stay true to herself and to remember where she came from – and whom she came from. Persepolis is as much a testament to the bravery, character and love of her family as it is a story of an individual girl.
Repression and Rebellion
- “At one of the demonstrations, a German journalist took a photo of my mother. I was really proud of her.” (5)Satrapi demonstrates depicts her younger self being inspired by her dissident and free-thinking other early in the graphic novel.
- “After a long sleep of 2500 years, the Revolution has finally awakened the people.” (11)Marjane’s father, Ebi, teachers her to view contemporary politics in the context of thousands of years of history, better allowing her to critique the justifications for power employed by regimes.
- “Now that the devil has left!” (43)Like millions of Iranians, the Satrapis are delighted at the Shah’s abdication. However, Satrapi foreshadows the emergence of a new repressive regime by depicting the metaphorical devil derided by her mother curling around the frame of the panel, as if closing in to further tighten its grip.
- “I never imagined that you could use that appliance for torture.” (51)
The discussion between the Satrapis and their old friends Siamak and Mohsen has a profound influence on Marjane, who was taught at school that the Shah governed by divine right. She now understands that the Shah’s power actually depended on extraordinary brutality.
- “All torturers should be massacred!” (52)The personal politics of oppression are deeply confusing for Marjane, as her own mother, who spoke regularly of the value of mercy and forgiveness, cries out for the slaughter of torturers. Gradually Satrapi comes to understand that there are no easy or correct ways of processing anger and the desire for revenge.
- “And that is how all the former revolutionaries became the sworn enemies of the republic.” (67)
Satrapi illuminates the fundamental similarities between all repressive regimes by demonstrating how the new Islamic regime quickly hunted down and eliminated the men and women who had challenged the rule of the Shah.
- “Without parties, we might as well bury ourselves now.” (106)The Islamic Republic uses horrific violence to prevent public forms of disobedience, so the people of Iran must find private ways to escape and rebel. In this quote, Satrapi presents the idea that perhaps some things, like celebrations, are so fundamental to humanity that they are worth risking death – because without them one would be as good as dead.
- “Those who opposed the regime were systematically arrested… and executed together.” (117)Using war as an excuse for brutality, the new Iranian regime focuses on solidifying its power and slaughtering anyone who could possibly oppose it. This quote highlights the fact that repressive regimes are fundamentally built on violence.
Knowledge and Learning
- “All bilingual schools must be closed down.” (4)Within the opening pages of Persepolis Satrapi makes it clear that regimes depend in part on brainwashing children whilst they are young. Primary schools are targeted as the perfect sites for teaching propaganda and instilling strict gender norms; boys and girls are thus separated from one another.
- “To enlighten me, they bought books.” (12)Satrapi’s parents believe in the value of education and the written word, and thus decide that arming Marjane with books is the best way to prepare her for the tumultuous political future facing the country. From her books she learns about revolutionaries and develops a strong sense of social justice.
- “Children, tear out all the photos of the Shah from your books.” (44)Symbolic attempts to erase history occur in Marjane’s school. Marjane’s father is usually careful to ensure that his daughter understands current events in their historical context, and Marjane challenges the teacher’s hypocrisy – and is punished. Marjane begins to realise that she cannot trust her country’s education system.
- “The Ministry of Education that universities will close at the end of the month.” (73)The new Islamic regime depends on unquestioning – and even better, unthinking – obedience. For this reason, universities, which at their best teach their students to challenge accepted ideas and power structures, are targeted and closed. Thus, physical violence is coupled with softer forms of control, such as control over what information and knowledge can be accessed.
- “Now is the time for learning… In this country you have to know everything better than anyone else if you’re going to survive!!” (113)As the situation becomes darker in Iran, Marjane’s mother emphasises the importance of education even more firmly, arguing that it is the single most important tool for survival.
- “Above all, I trust your education.” (147)Finally, the Satrapis decide that Marjane’s fiery temperament and love of knowledge have rendered Iran a dangerous place for her to stay. In order to make sure she can learn more freely they send her to Austria – trusting the knowledge they have given her will keep her safe.
Gender and Patriarchy
- “We didn’t really like to wear the veil, especially since we didn’t understand why we had to.” (3)Satrapi opens her memoir as a ten-year-old girl, confused by a strange new requirement. The introduction of the veil becomes symbolic of the repression of women throughout Persepolis, is included this early in the context of a schoolyard in order to demonstrate the strangeness of religious law in its intersection with childhood.
- “Everywhere in the streets there were demonstrations for and against the veil.” (5)Whilst clearly used by men as a way of regulating the behaviour of women, the imposition of veil-wearing in Iran was supported by some women, suggesting that Iranian society is complex and divided.
- “I wanted to be an educated, liberated woman, and if the pursuit of knowledge meant getting cancer, so be it.” (73)Marjane takes as one of her many idols the great scientist Marie Curie, demonstrating her fundamentally progressive and egalitarian nature – and the threat posed to her dreams by the at times brutally misogynistic regime which rises to power in Iran following the Revolution.
- “They said that women like me should be pushed up against a wall and fucked. And then thrown in the garbage. And that if I didn’t want that to happen, I should wear the veil.” (74)Marjane’s mother is subjected to the brutally misogynistic threats that the regime and its sympathisers employ in order to intimidate and silence women.
- “Compared to Iraq, Iran had a huge reservoir of potential soldiers. The number of war martyrs emphasised that difference.” (94)In a darkly ironic moment, Satrapi reveals the horrible truth at the heart of the Iran/Iraq War – the only advantage held by Iran is the sheer number of its men it can have killed. Satrapi uses that fact to highlight the senseless and self-destructive nature of war.
- “They put on funeral marches, and we had to beat our breasts.” (95)Satrapi depicts the role of ritual in brainwashing a population into uncritically accepting warfare. She achieves this by drawing rows of barely distinguishable girls in veils staring, wide-eyed and clearly somewhat bewildered, straight at the reader, with splash effects around their hands emphasising the physical nature of the ritual. The image highlights the intention behind the ritual: to enforce social conformity.
- “It’s nuts! They hypnotise them and just toss them into battle. Absolute carnage.” (101)Shahab recounts the manner in which young men are brainwashed and hypnotised. They are tempted with the prospect of a glorious afterlife and them put into a “trance” with patriotic songs. Above all, Satrapi emphases that the regime picks the young and ill-educated, people most likely to be impressionable, and thus creates the illusion of patriotism. This is part of the reason why Marjane’s parents value education so highly.
- “They eventually admitted that the survival of the regime depended on the war.” (116)The Iranian regime depends on distracting the population from its own atrocities with the war, and by justifying its oppressive tactics by claiming that they are necessary in wartime. Marjane feels “sick” when she realises that up to a million people have died simply so that the authoritarian regime of Iran can cling onto power.
Childhood and Family
- “Deep down I was very religious but as a family we were very modern and avant-garde.” (6)Marjane Satrapi was born into an essentially secular family, and, as this quote shows, she spent many years grappling with religion and secularism before eventually abandoning her faith.
- “The emperor that was overthrown was Grandpa’s father.” (22)The revelation that the Satrapis are descended from what was at one point royalty is important for two reasons. Firstly, it helps the young Marjane understand her place in history, relate current events to the past, and understand some of what her family has suffered. Secondly, it demonstrates the fact that the Satrapi family believed in the importance of knowledge. Ebi gives this knowledge to his daughter so that she might better understand the world around her.
- “During the time Anoosh staid with us I heard political discussions of the highest order.” (62)Marjane learns much of the history and political situation of Iran from her family. She is particularly inspired by her uncle Anoosh, whom she terms a “hero,” and his execution by the Islamic regime is a deeply distressing moment of disillusionment for her.
- “Dictator! You are the Guardian of the Revolution of this house!” (113)The education and passion for freedom instilled in Marjane by her parents at times puts her at odds with them. For example, she cannot fully understand why her mother, who seems so rebellious in other areas of her life, should be furious that Marjane has skipped school. The answer is of course that she understands how crucial knowledge is to survival in regimes like the Islamic Republic, even if Marjane is too young to see that yet.
- “No scream in the world could have relieved my suffering and my anger.” (142)The death of the Baba-Levys, the Jewish neighbours of the Satrapis, is one of several turning points in Marjane’s life. Still a young girl, she has heard tales of torture from family friends, had an uncle murdered by the Islamic Republic, been threatened by religious police, and now lost a friend to the war. Satrapi depicts the emotional devastation suffered by children in war zones by simply drawing a black square – emphasising the impossibility of a child truly reconciling themselves with this sort of tragedy.“We feel it’s better for you to be far away and happy than close by and miserable.” (148)Marjane’s parents ultimately demonstrate the depths of their love for their daughter by sending her to Austria in order to be safer, freer, and better educated. This is painful for them, and the final image of the first part of Persepolis is of Marjane staring, horrified, at her fainting mother.
Marjane Satrapi is nine years old at the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Persepolis is told from her perspective as she navigates childhood and adolescence in a world which continuously shifts under her feet. The memoir opens with an image of her staring directly at the reader, wearing a veil. One of the main themes of the graphic novel, Marjane’s attempt to understand her changing world as she grows up in it, is captured in her early statement of confusion about the way her society has suddenly changed: “We didn’t really like to wear the veil, especially since we didn’t understand why we had to.”
As a young child, Marjane exhibits the symptoms of Iran’s rich and occasionally contradictory culture. She has a strong spiritual side to her nature, but describes her family as “very modern and avant-garde.” She convinces herself, as a six-year-old, that she is destined to become the next great prophet of Islam – although she takes as much if not more inspiration from the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Between her secular parents, ancient Zoroastrian past, and predominantly Muslim contemporary society, Marjane finds herself fusing a number of philosophies together. When the Revolution begins, she turns to politics and political philosophy, drawing inspiration from the revolutionaries of her own country as well as further afield, and from Marxist notions of dialectical materialism. She develops a strong sense of social justice, especially regarding her maid, Mehri, whose romance with a neighbour is broken off after her true social status is revealed.
Marjane grows increasingly forthright and passionate over the course of the memoir. Her growing political awareness is, however, frequently tempered by moments of profound disillusionment. The execution of her beloved uncle Anoosh is one such moment. Her attitude towards war is also forced to develop in complexity. At the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War she is very belligerent, calling for retaliatory strikes against Iraq and initially angry that her father has no interest in signing up to fight. As the war drags on and she learns about Iran’s techniques, however, she becomes increasingly disillusioned. She learns of the brainwashing and trickery employed by the military to encourage young boys to fight, and then comes to realise that Iran has rejected generous peace terms because the regime has become dependent on using the war as justification for its draconian measures. The thought makes her feel “sick,” and she reflects that “A million people would still be alive” had the regime accepted the peace offered by Iraq and supported by Saudi Arabia.
As her views develop, Marjane becomes increasingly rebellious. She dons Western fashions until caught by the Guardians of the Revolution, and covertly buys illicit tapes of American pop groups. She is frequently disobedient and contrarian at school, challenging teachers and speaking her mind. Admirable as it is, this disobedience eventually sees her expelled. Her parents decide that her rebellious nature and thirst for knowledge should be nurtured somewhere safer, and so they send her to study in Austria.
Marjane’s mother is surely a crucial influence on the young girl. A thoroughly modern woman with no time for religious dictates, we first encounter Taji Satrapi at a rally against the imposition of the veil (and in the second part to Persepolis it is revealed that Taji’s favourite writer is the French feminist Simone de Beavoir). This introduction to her character highlights the two sides to Taji which have a decisive impact on her relationship with her daughter over the course of the book. She is clearly idealistic, passionate, and happy to stand up for her rights. After she is photographed at a rally, however, and that photograph is picked up and printed by papers all over the world, she dies her hair and makes other efforts to disguise herself. She is thus also deeply pragmatic. She instils in Marjane a strong sense of equality and personal freedom, but confuses the young girl when she cracks down on her for skipping school. Taji stresses that survival under regimes such as the Islamic Republic require education and pragmatism. When Ebi, her husband, is initially proud of Marjane for getting herself expelled, Taji angrily reminds them both that Anoosh, Ebi’s brother, paid the ultimate price for his rebellious nature.
For all that their relationship is occasionally fraught, Taji is a loving and devoted mother to Marjane. Despite occasional (and given the context, justified) outbursts of vengeful rage, she always stresses the importance of compassion and forgiveness to her daughter: “It is not for you and me to do justice,” she tells her daughter after Marjane discovers that the father of a classmate worked in the secret police under the Shah. “I’d even say we have to learn to forgive” (46). It is an important lesson that Marjane tries to take to heart.
Ebi Satrapi, Marjane’s father, is in some ways the epitome of the westernised Iranian. He drives a Cadillac, listens to Pink Floyd, drinks alcohol and deplores Islamic theocracy. However, he is not naïve or in any way ignorant to the evils of the Western world, either; he takes what he sees as the best elements of both worlds and reconciles them. This act of synthesis is characteristic of Ebi, and at times contradictory; he is a devoted Marxist but enjoys a privileged life, including the employment of a maid whose romance he scuppers by revealing her social status.
Ebi, like Taji, is a strong believer in the power and value of education. He buys books for his household in their scores and he carefully relates the historical background of the Revolution to Marjane. He is a radical, friendly with political prisoners such as Mohsen and Siamak (and of course his own brother, Anoosh). He participates in the demonstrations against the Shah, and, characteristic of a man to whom knowledge and education is so important, contributes by recording events for posterity, taking photos of the turmoil in the streets even though such an act is “strictly forbidden.” He is cautious, and teaches Marjane not to trust the word of the regime, insisting instead on double-checking every item of news with the BBC. He is earnest and politically passionate but also has a wry sense of humour; when a belligerent Marjane complains that the Iraqis are historic enemies of Iran eager to invade, her father replies, “And worse, they drive like maniacs.” He even admits, to Taji’s disgust, to being fond of Iron Maiden.
Ebi Satrapi does his best to prepare his daughter for life, and to make sure she is equipped to fight ignorance and prejudice where she finds it. His portrayal in Persepolis, like Taji’s, is sympathetic and very warm.
Marjane takes inspiration from her maternal grandmother, whose husband was connected to the aristocracy prior to the Shah’s regime. When he was arrested, she was left to raise her children alone and in poverty. She is warm and unfailingly kind, with a keen sense of humour, positing herself as “Grandma Martyr” as she laughs along to an anecdote from Ebi about an old woman who is mistakenly identified as the widow of a revolutionary martyr. She is also quick-witted and resourceful; when Revolutionary Guards come to investigate the Satrapi family home, suspecting there to be alcohol inside, she convinces one of the guards that she must enter immediately because she has diabetes and requires sugar syrup. She then quickly disposes of the illicit beverages.
Marjane’s grandmother has many of the same characteristics as Ebi and Taji, in terms of kindness and political convictions. In one of her longer pieces of dialogue, the night before Marjane flies away, she gives her granddaughter powerful words of advice:
In life you’ll meet a lot of jerks. If they hurt you, tell yourself that it’s because they’re stupid. That will help keep you from reacting to their cruelty. Because there is nothing worse than bitterness and vengeance… always keep your dignity and be true to yourself. (150)
Although not always kept by Marjane over the two graphic novels, these words form something like the moral of Persepolis, and they ring throughout the introduction Satrapi writes.
Anoosh is a paternal uncle of Marjane’s. He is a long-time political radical whose persecution led to him fleeing to the U.S.S.R, where he started a family, eventually separated from his wife and tried to return to Iran. In Iran he was arrested and imprisoned for nine years. He and Marjane develop a close bond in the short time they have together. As the situation in Iran darkens, Satrapi depicts Anoosh’s slow loss of optimism, as his refrain of “Everything will be alright” grows more and more despondent. He tells Marjane that it is important that she never forgets the past, and never forgets the suffering of their family. She pledges that she will not.
When Anoosh is eventually arrested and executed as a “Russian spy,” his death leaves Marjane “lost.” It is one of the first traumatic encounters she has with the regime, having been insulated from much of the turmoil thus far. Her pledge to never forget the lives taken by various regimes is one of the cornerstones of Persepolis.
Siamak Jari and Mohsen Shakiba
Simak and Mohsen are two of the 3000 political prisoners released after the fall of the Shah. They recount the horrors they endured as political prisoners and thus introduce Marjane for the first time to some of the realities of repression. She is horrified at their descriptions of the tortures meted out to them.
Once the Islamic Republic is established, enemies of the old regime are quickly marked out as enemies of the new regime. Mohsen is found drowned in his bathtub – with only his head submerged, clearly demonstrating that it was an act of murder. The Revolutionary Guard arrive at Siamak’s house, but he had already fled with his immediate family, across the border, disguised as sheep. His sister was murdered in his place.
The encounters with Siamak and Mohsen are brief, but they are important. Their murders (or attempted murders) mark a turning point in the regime, as it becomes explicitly violent and repressive. Their presence in Marjane’s life mark the increasing presence of the regime in her life also.