Marji is 10 at the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. She loves Michael Jackson and hates the veil and can’t fathom why her friends from last year have to study separately now because they are boys. They said something about “decadence”. She also knows that she’s destined to become the first female Prophet of Islam. She’s thrilled that her grandfather was a prince and disappointed that her father is not a “hero”, so she doesn’t have glorious tales of his hardships in prison to show off to her friends.
Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel autobiography, Persepolis, is written and illustrated by her. She also co-directed Persepolis, the movie based on her books. As in the trailer, Marji is young, spirited, and gradually learns the joys and sorrows of living in a country in turmoil. Demonstrations aren’t wonderful, torture chambers are horrendous, the Shah is not appointed by God, and Iron Maiden posters from Turkey can be snuck in past Iranian customs in the lining of her father’s coat.
The Islamic Revolution in Iran was a fallout of the 1921 coup d’état. The Iranian coup d’état was orchestrated by the British to make Reza Shah Pahlavi, an illiterate soldier, the Shah of Iran in exchange for oil. Marjane’s grandfather was the son of the emperor who was overthrown. His possessions were confiscated by Reza Shah and was appointed Prime Minister as the only educated man in the sea of the Shah’s uneducated entourage.
This is the narrative in the book, but the British version of events is that the previous emperor was incompetent and they wanted to halt the advance of the Bolsheviks to protect their Indian colonies. The oil probably didn’t hurt either.
Reza Shah Pahlavi, the man that they instated as the new Shah of Iran was not a bad man. He loved his country and wanted to modernize it. His son was not cut from the same cloth though. Protests were commonplace and Marji has a great time begging to participate in demonstrations and playing a new game that the children of her neighbourhood invented based on the events occurring in their country: fighting, torture and martyrdom.
Eventually, the Shah was overthrown and a republic was established. They said that 99.99% Iranians voted for an Islamic Republic. Women were forced to wear a veil, told off for wearing makeup or behaving in any way that could cause a man to get excited (like running to catch a bus). Partying or being with a man who was not related to you were both punishable offenses but they continued behind closed doors, in the privacy of people’s houses.
Soon things got so bad in Iran that Marji’s parents decided to send her away to Austria to study. There she had a hard time adjusting to the abundance of food and freedom, while feeling guilty about all that she left behind. Through the series of ups and downs we end up really invested in the life of this girl and the young woman that she transforms into through words and pictures. How does one deal with being a teenager far away from home when conservative Iran and liberal Europe are like chalk and cheese? What if you don’t see your parents for so long that they fail to recognize you? How do you navigate a city you’ve never been to in a language that you can’t speak?
Along the way, I learnt a lot more about Iran that’s relevant to how I understand the country today than what cold and clinical newspapers could give me. Marji is funny, cool and relatable. She makes her life, her people, her culture accessible to me and makes me see that we aren’t so different at all. Even amidst wars and revolutions, human nature will find a way to bloom and grow as we figure out our way in the world.
EDIT: John on Iran’s Revolutions