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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #37 (September 7, 2004), page 13.
Return to Persia, return to Persepolis
By Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon Books, 2004
Paperback, 192 pages, $17.95
By Jeff Wenger
Last year, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood was released in the U.S. to great reviews. Comparisons to Art Speigelman’s Maus were inevitable because both are high-brow graphic novels, both are illustrated in a deceptively simple style, and both are published in black and white. Both are "serious" comics dealing with tragedies great and small.
This year American audiences can follow Marjane’s story through adolescence to adulthood with Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. As happens with most people in adolescence, Marjane is sadder and less full of wonder and so, resultantly, is Persepolis 2. But her growth makes the reader wiser for the time invested.
Part of what is brilliant about this work (and there is much that is brilliant about this work) is the incidental way that Satrapi weaves her personal story within a background of events that, though momentous, are unfamiliar to most Western readers. The reader is fascinated by the people but also the time and events, such as the minutia of life under a harsh Islamic regime.
Satrapi’s medium is simple, but deceptively so. It is the marvel of the artist to make it look easy and Satrapi is marvelous. Chimpanzees will compose Shakespearean epics before anyone will, with black Sharpie in hand, scrawl out anything as good.
Life under the mullahs
In the first volume the reader received an introduction to life under the mullahs in post-revolutionary Iran and the beginning of eight years of war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Persepolis ends with Satrapi’s departure for school in Europe. Persepolis 2 is very much an emmigrant’s tale: the old family friend who is supposed to take her in is not so hospitable in person. While war rages at home, Marjane spends the 1980s like many lost teens — with experimental drugs and experimental sex and philosophies endemic among angst-ridden white boys.
In time, emotionally beaten, she returns to Iran. Marjane prefers life under the mullahs with her adoring parents and grandmother to freedom in the familial vacuum of the West.
She must reacclimatize to the Iranian religio-political realities in the late 1980s. The war with Iraq had devastated Iran. Vast murals and slogans lionized the "martyrs" of the war. Streets were renamed in their honor. A million people died. As the war ended, internal political opposition was smashed, killing tens of thousands more. Though Satrapi doesn’t harp on it, the reader is reminded that the United States backed Iraq during the war.
She tries to get on with her life, adjusting to the veil that she must wear when out of her home and connecting with her old friends and their mundane interests.
This is where the genius of Persepolis 2 is found: at the intersection of the universal coming-of-age themes familiar to everyone, and the specific way these occurred in post-revolutionary Iran.
Axis of evil
In the Iran of the Ayatollah and the mullahs, men dress as they wish but women must wear the veil and the chador, the long, concealing garb called a burqah elsewhere in the Muslim world. Showing wisps of bangs from beneath the veil was considered a political act. Satrapani explains that a woman leaving her home wondering, ‘Are my trousers too long? Is my veil in place? Are they going to whip me?’ doesn’t ask herself, ‘Where is my freedom of thought? My life, is it livable? What’s going on in the political prisons?’
As an art student, she and classmates learned to draw drapes from looking at the female models covered in their chadors. They drew fully clothed male models for a while but it was ruled against the moral code.
One day the police stopped Marjane for running to catch her bus.
"When you run," one said, "your behind makes movements that are … obscene!"
"Well then don’t look at my *ss!"
Marjane yelled so loud that she wasn’t arrested.
Satrapi has been shrill in her opposition to the current war in Iraq, declaring that she (born in Iran to leftist parents and now living in France) is the Axis of Evil. Persepolis 2 impresses with the skillful way that Satrapi reveals Iran to the not-necessarily sympathetic audience.
It is good when art puts us in the other guy’s shoes. It is singularly impressive to put even the Toby-Keith- listening reviewer in the other gal’s chador.
Marjane Satrapi will make appearances at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company (101 S. Main Street) on September 15 and at Portland’s Powell’s City of Books (1005 W. Burnside Street) on September 17. Both events will be held at 7:30pm. For information, visit <www.elliottbaybook.com> or <www.powells.com>.