Review: Persepolis

Persepolis I

I recently managed to finish the four-book bande dessine (BD) (French comic) entitled Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, a graphic novelist who grew up in Tehran admist the Iranian revolution and eventually moved to Austria before settling down in France. Persepolis is about her, her journey, her experiences as a girl and then a woman growing up in two different worlds. What first brought me to this BD was in fact an animated film by the same title which was nominated at the 2007 Academy Awards and the winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes in 2007.

Bear in mind that everything is in French – the BD, the film…it took me about two months, the longest ever, to finish the book and even then, I would gladly re-read it again!

The story first begins with a 10 year old Marjane growing up admist increasing calls for the removal of the US-backed Shah of Iran. We see Marjane as a child with dreams unlike those of her age. She wishes to be the future prophetess and desires good actions, words and thoughts from people. Bad things are simply forbidden, she says. Her family dreams of a better Iran; one without political prisoners and with more freedom.

But they are all thoroughly disappointed when the Islamic Fundamentalists win by a landslide and installs an Islamic regime, which is shown predominantly through its religious guards, religious leaders, religious chants and nearly-kamikaze attitudes. The arrest and subsequent execution of Marjane’s uncle leads her to reject God and she (and her family) reluctantly embrace a repressive lifestyle. Their lives become increasingly dangerous and even crazy during the Iraq-Iran war, where no one was allowed to leave because passports were deemed “unnecessary”. “If it is God’s will, you will be given a passport” says the hospital administrator, former window cleaner, to the wife of a dying man.

Persepolis  - Shot 3 Persepolis  - Shot 2

We see hints of rebellion in the young Marjane as she dones sneakers and a jacket with the words “Punk Is Not Ded” with sewn on “emblems” of Michael Jackson while attempting to buy “illegal” music; in this case, Iron Maiden. She rebutts the religious teacher at school countless of times and it prompts her worrying mother to make arrangements for her move to Vienna.

Tu veux peut-être qu’elle finisse aussi comme lui? Exécutée? Tu sais ce qu’ils font aux jeunes filles quand ils les arrentent? Tu sais ce qui est arrivé a Niloufar? La fille que tu as rencontrée chez Khosro, celui qui fabriquait des passeports? Tu sais que selon la loi, on n’a pas le droit de tuer une vierge… Alors on la marie avec un gardien de la revolution…qui la depucelle avant de l’exécuter! Tu sais ce que ça veut dire? Si quelqu’un touche a un seul de tes cheveux…je le tue!

Loosely translated: You want her to end up like him (Marjane’s uncle)? Executed? Do you know what they do to young girls when they are arrested? Do you know what happened to Niloufar? The girl you met at Khosro’s home, the man who makes those passports? You know that it’s forbidden to kill a virgin so they married her to one of the revolutionists and after he has fucked her, they hang her! Do you know what I’m saying? If anyone touches a hair on your head, I’ll kill him!

So off she goes to Vienna. In a nutshell, she ends up feeling guilty and pretty much like an outsider. While her family is at home surviving/fighting to get through life with the war, she is safe. And yet, despite having friends, she feels alone. No one really understands the true meaning of revolution or war. What’s worse, people form stereotypes of her – being a young teen going through an identity crisis, she tries at first to fit in…even to the point of denying that she is Iranian. But it doesn’t work. In the end, after a bad break-up, she ends up homeless for months…and finally we see her in the hospital, where she makes a call to her parents, asking to come home, no questions to be asked.

Back at home, she can’t seem to fit in – too modern and “Westernised” for a now religious Iran. Things, too many things, have changed. After a bout of more depression and a suicide attempt, something snaps and she starts to move on with life, applying into university and adjusting to life at home. She still pisses off the religious authorities and partakes in secret alcohol parties (which are illegal), wearing make-up in public (also illegal)…even getting married so she could be with her boyfriend in public legally.

Her marriage soon falls apart, and with a friend getting killed trying to escape arrest at one of these alcohol parties and her constantly confronting authority at the university, her family decides that she ought to leave Iran for good before the Islamic regime targets her for arrest (and execution). She agrees but her last words? “La liberte avait un prix.” (“Freedom has a price.”) By that, she meant that she never saw her family again…even when her grandmother passed away a few months after her departure.

The story of Marjane Satrapi’s life both on the BD and in the animation is haunting to say the least. It gave me a fresh perspective on life in another part of the world, a life that most of us would never have to face. The choices a society makes out of fear…is incredible. Without thinking ahead, the Iranians then had replaced a dictator with another one – somewhat like killing the tiger only to put a crocodile in its place.

While the portrayal of Islam may seem “too strong” for Muslim communities, even in Malaysia, (which is probably why Malaysians back at home would never see it), it is true for some Muslims. The animation provoked an outrage in Iran – naturally – and I suspect if it was translated into English, even more so in other parts of the world.

But you cannot deny the experiences of one person and put it all to “falsehood”. The memories and experiences faced by Marjane are real to her. If you are open-minded, if you wish to see how any religion can go horribly wrong (just replace Islam with Catholicism or Christianity), this is a good one. But if you cannot expect that there are cases like this happening around the world, if you believe that life is thoroughly and truly perfect, then save your blood vessels and skip this one.

I admire the woman for the guts she has in starting a new life away from everything she knew, yet I am angry that she had to go through this as a child, a young girl and finally a woman.

And they say comics/animation are for children. Bahhumbug!

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  1. hey mei, i am so glad you enjoyed persepolis. i love graphic novels too and have been using them to pick up more norwegian. a few months ago, i discovered the library near our house has a whole comic book section so have read loads over the last few months! click on the comics tag in the cloud to see which ones. i strongly recommend the rabbi’s cat (also originally in french) – loved it so much i have given 4 copies away as gifts ever since!

  2. i enjoyed this book as well. i have the english version. it was my first time reading a comic/graphic style novel and it was quite amusing! i also heard about the animation but you said that it is in french? hopefully there are subtitles.

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