Persepolis

I, my friends, am branching out. This book is the autobiographical story of a young woman growing up in Iran in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Young Marjane begins her story during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 when she was ten years old and takes us through the next five years of her life. The cool part is that this book is written in the form of a black and white comic book. Yeah, that’s right, a black and white comic book. Aren’t I offbeat and eclectic?

So, in 1979, the Shah of Iran gets run out of the country and given asylum by Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt. Political prisoners were freed but the Cultural Revolution starts shortly thereafter and results in more deaths and imprisonment. During the Cultural Revolution all Iranian universities were shut down for two years to purge the system of “westernism” and smooth the way for the conversion to an Islamic state. Ayatollah Khomeini became the supreme leader of the country. Relations with the US deteriorated rapidly (the hostage crisis) and the war with Iraq began.

These events are played out in the view of a worldly pre-teen girl. I’m sure my recounting of the history has huge gaps because the exact retelling of what went on is not the point of the book. I think the point is that people inside Iran basically didn’t know what hit them. As these huge changes were happening, they had no idea if they were going to be better off or not. People were happy then they were sad. Long lost friends were back one day and gone abruptly shortly thereafter. It appeared a repressive regime was gone, but then the universities were shut down and strict rules on appearance and conduct began to be enforced by a crueler regime.

I could not imagine the turmoil. During that time I was in high school and really didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. I collected baseball cards, studied hard, played golf, and listened to Iron Maiden. Really, what else was there to do? I vaguely remember the hostage crisis and the 1980 US presidential election, but there wasn’t a lot of lively debate in my familial or social circle. However, I could recite the starting lineup of every major league baseball team…I’m talking every position of every team, except maybe the fourth and fifth pitchers in the rotation.

So since any sort of analysis of this Middle Eastern crisis passed me by during my formative years, I don’t have a good understanding of the politics and history of the Middle East, even though it’s in the news all of the time. I’ve always been curious about it but just not enough to really dig into it. I remember attempting to read Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem back in the early 1990’s, but I just couldn’t get through it. That it takes a comic book to really pique my interest in the subject is probably a sad commentary on my life. But the format does not detract from the keen insight that Marjane Satrapi provides.

Her family was rebellious. Her parents spoke out against the Shah vigorously. When the Shah fled and the new Khomeini regime came into power, they protested again. However, they stopped in short order because the punishment was much worse under the new regime. They still protested in private by drinking, dancing, and playing cards. But as the war with Iraq dragged on, the regime cracked down harder and harder on people who showed resistance. Rebellion came in different, more private ways.

Young Marjane rebelled by listening to Iron Maiden, which, as you know, is my favorite rock group of all time. So at the same time but half a world away, I was listening to the same music that this young Iranian woman was listening to. Their intelligent lyrics did not belie their thug-like appearance and this is proof that Iron Maiden spoke for more than just a group of middle class white kids in northwest Ohio.

Near the end of the book an Iraqi scud hits Marjane’s street in Tehran and her neighbor is killed. She knows this because she recognizes her neighbor’s arm in the rubble by the bracelet that she always wore. Her life changed after this and she becomes very rebellious. One day she smacks the principal and gets expelled from school. At her new school, Marjane argues with the religion teacher about martyrdom and executions. At this point, her parents come to the realization that this country is not good for their daughter. With her rebellious attitude they figure she will not make it out of her teen years. At age 14, they send Marjane to Austria to live with a friend and attend school. Marjane never expects to see her parents again and the book ends.

It’s a moving book and well worth the time. You can get through this 153 page comic book in less than two hours. I’m glad I spent the time. She has a sequel that starts where this book leaves off and I will read that soon.