Iran. Who knows much about it? We’ve all seen Argo, we’ve all heard of nuclear weapons, we’re all aware that the Persian empire was one of the largest and most important in the ancient world. I say “we”, I’m just talking about myself.*
Persepolis is a famous graphic novel, one of the ones that it’s acceptable for “cool” people to own non-ironically. It is drawn in a simple black and white style and tells the autobiographical story of Marjane Satrapi’s youth – her childhood in Iran as it shifted from a wealthy, Westernised country into a repressive, fundamentalism state, her half-decade out of the country during her teenage years (spent in Austria) and her return to Iran as a directionless young adult: her ideas more confused, the Islamic regime’s rules ever more rigid.
What are the general levels of knowledge about recent history in Iran? This “review” may become a short, informal, historical essay (for a bit), just to warn you.
Iran was a wealthy, democratic, oil-producing country up until just after the Second World War, when British and US interests were piqued by the black gold. In retaliation to foreign efforts to suck off all the oil money produced in Iran, the Iranian Prime Minister nationalised the oil industry. Naturally, this did not go down well, and those kooky internationals funded a coup d’etat to install the son of the previous, undemocratic, leader as Emperor. The power went to his head and (though society was in many ways more permissive than it would be afterwards) political thought was highly frowned upon. It was a West-sanctioned dictatorship that contained lots of political prisoners who ended up permanently disappeared, and anyone pro-democracy had to flee or hide their opinions. However, women were allowed to walk in the streets without a veil on, universities were places of education, not religious doctrine, men did not have to wear beards, and people of differing religions were able to live in (undemocratic) harmony with each other.
Eventually, things had to snap, and revolution broke out in 1979. And then, in pretty much EXACTLY THE SAME WAY AS IN SYRIA TODAY, YO, the revolution got hijacked from the intellectuals by the right-wing, traditionalist Islamists, and within a couple of years the country banned women’s right to a divorce, banned women’s hair from public view, normalised treating women as second class citizens, normalised mass executions for people who protested, normalised re-education** sites for anyone the state believed to be subversive, banned international travel (for a few years, not forever – they didn’t want to be too repressive), banned alcohol and dancing, banned Western music, banned un-gender-segregated schools, banned the depiction of women without veils, banned political as well as religious dissent and all round tried to make life shit for everyone who wasn’t a hardline right wing Iranian Muslim male.
Marjane Satrapi was none of those things. A child under the more modernised dictatorship before the revolution, she grew up used to being friends with boys, not having to cover her hair and knowing adult women who were able to express their opinions. She did – and, as always with this blog, it comes down to class – come from a wealthy background, her father an engineer and her grandfather one of the many sons of the former royals deposed by the democratic Iranians earlier in the century. Her parents are liberal. They travel abroad, they have friends all over the world, they drink, they like to dance, they respect their daughter as an individual and want her to have a life better than the future looks set to hold after the Islamic Revolution. (Why the present tense, I ask I myself?)
That’s the plot, the premise, the story. It’s a coming-of-age memoir, obviously, with lots of sex and drugs and a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll. There’s class-skipping in school, there’s loss of conservative repression, there’s discovery of literature and music, and all of this coming from a position of innocence due to the shuttered world of Iran in the early 80s. In Iran, Marjane was an outsider because her parents did not want to conform to the changing country, in Austria she was an outsider because her notions of normalcy were too tied to it. When, eventually, she returned, she realised soon enough that the place was not the dreamland she had hoped of from afar – though she was able to concentrate on her studies more and (after a while) find a boyfriend who didn’t see her as a curiosity, she was too far gone to return and assimilate. She couldn’t date her boyfriend in public, so married him to avoid the hassle from the fundamentalists; she falsely accused a stranger of being lewd towards her to distract police from harrassing her due to the make up she was wearing…
Although in these two moments, Marjane seems to cave into the kind of broken person Iranian society seemed to be pushing for, at other times we see her rail against the state, be it police who tell her that running for a bus makes her buttocks shake indecently (“THEN YOU SHOULDN’T BE LOOKING AT MY ASS!” she screams), or speaking honestly when asked about Islam in her university interview.
Marjane’s narrative is interesting, and it offers an involving and deep insight into a society I didn’t know much about (Argo aside, lol). However, I couldn’t help but feel that the real tragedy was not Marjane’s, but the tragedy of the tens of thousands of other young women of her age whose parents couldn’t afford to send them off to Europe. Also, the tragedy of the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners executed and the young men sent to fight in a pointless war against Iraq.
Marjane’s story is horrific and terrifying, but the violence and the death and the torture always happens at one remove, and she is able to tell this story because she escaped, because she moved to France and became a graphic novelist. Persepolis is a beautiful, moving memoir, but Satrapi’s was a minor tragedy compared to those of the people who lost their lives and their freedom at the hands of the government.
It’s interesting, as I mentioned above, how many similarities there are between problems in the Middle East then and now, and how the root cause still remains the same. Imperialists chasing control of oil, for almost a century, have done too much damage for things to quickly stabilise.
Stability in the Middle East hasn’t existed for a long time. Will it yet?
I don’t know, I’m just a bartender with a blog.
What I do know, though, is that Persepolis is a great read, and it comes highly recommended.
* Loneliness levels are reaching the point where I’m imagining I have other people who share my opinions/experiences. I’ve given up looking at pictures of dogs for sale on the internet as my hungry, hungry need is rapidly getting larger than the wise bit of myself that knows that getting a dog would be a bad idea. But I want one SO BAAAAAAADDDDD.