Walking through Persepolis

I have a special place in my heart for creators of comics. Ideas, images, language, the eye, the mind and the hand, everything coming together with perfect coordination. This isn’t to say I’m a fan of anime or the superhero universe (I have been loyal to my collection of Calvin and Hobbes for more than a decade now).

The other day, while at a bookstore, I discovered Persepolis (subtitled The Story of a Childhood and The Story of a Return) by Marjane Satrapi. This is a memoir, narrated in comic strips.

When we are introduced to Marjane, she is a child of ten growing up in Iran, curious about the world around her, living in a progressive household that encourages her to ask questions. She doesn’t understand much of what goes on around her – people are angry, they are fighting for something, and their demands are a little beyond her comprehension. Death waits at every street corner, and then suddenly, everyone is jubilant. Apparently the Shah was overthrown, the revolutionaries have won. The happiness is short-lived, because now the Islamic revolutionaries head the state, and they are against the erstwhile revolutionaries. It is all a bit overwhelming for Marjane, and confusing. One day, they are taught the Shah is divine, and the next week, the wishes of the divine power have changed. Marjane communicates with God too (“I want to be a Prophet,” she declares to a bewildered teacher). She notes that God looks like a lot like Marx (though Marx’s hair was a bit curlier).

The world is different from a child’s point of view. When adults do not want to answer uncomfortable questions, or wish to protect their children from the truth, they resort to inventive lies. A father who is in prison is ‘away on a trip’. A relative who was murdered is probably on a longer trip. The class divide that exists does not escape her too. They treat their maid well, Marjane even thinks of her as a big sister. But when the maid falls in love with their neighbour’s son, Marjane’s dad is clear that this relationship cannot be permitted. He tells her they must stay within their social class. “We were not in the same social class but at least we were in the same bed,” she later observes. This difference in the lives of the social classes is underlined elsewhere too – when Marjane realizes the children of the poor are sent to battle in the front lines, with a ‘Key to Paradise’ hanging around their necks. As though Paradise was a five-star hotel. Even as a child, she is unusually sensitive. She feels bad about being relatively affluent, when everyone around them is in misery. Marjane’s parents try to protect her, but the reality is harsh, and inescapable. When the situation seems to be getting worse (the house next to theirs is destroyed by missiles, killing everyone inside), they decide to send her to school in Austria.

This is how the first part ends.

The second part begins with Marjane’s (mis)adventures in Vienna, struggling to settle into her new life, living in a free land. It is the loneliness that gets to her. With her parents stuck in a war zone, their only hope is the belief that she is far away from it all, and happy. She feels guilty at wasting away this opportunity, but she is unable to assimilate fully into a culture where she stands out even when she’s doing nothing. She has a hard time making friends, and acutely misses having a support system. Four years later, she moves back to Iran. But she is a bit broken forever – an Iranian in the West, an outsider in Iran. Things are much more absurd now, as she realizes. The Islamic revolution is everywhere, people have become used to living in fear and being bullied for a minor transgression like talking to those of the opposite gender on the street. Women have the worst of it, their freedoms are non-existent. They are constantly watched, subjugated, punished. In one panel, the author talks about how a woman stepping out of the house must think if she is disobeying any of the rules – is my hair visible, is my make-up obvious, are my ankles seen, is my body fully covered? When this is all one thinks about, there is no time to be politically active, or to think about ideology, she writes. Her own friends, for all their fashionable hair styles and bright lipsticks, are still stuck in the ways of a conservative society. They talk as though as they are rebels, but look at Marjane differently when she reveals she isn’t a virgin. They rush to get married, to rich old men, or rich young men, leaving Marjane wondering if she was doing something wrong. “Anyone can get married,” her father tells her.

The black and white panels are bold and beautiful to look at, the expressions always accurate, the details just right. The writing and the images are both straightforward, but what we learn from them is hard to take in all at once.

Sometime in 1998 (or was it 1999?), we lived under the threat of a war in Kuwait. It was exciting, if I wanted to be honest. We carried masks to school (Biological weapons! Anthrax! Missiles!), and practiced emergency evacuation. We would wait for the alarm to sound, you didn’t know when it would go off – imagine the joy of it happening during a particularly boring class. We would all assemble in the ground, and then they would dismiss us. It was a diversion we enjoyed. I can’t imagine what living through a war must be like. This book put me right in the middle of it. It is the story of a war, but it is also the story of a girl. Later, a woman. Some dilemmas are universal.

I have a friend from Iran, I admit I was in awe of her for the longest time. She is a scientist, beautiful, glamorous and funny. I remember asking her if she would ever like to return to her country. She didn’t need to think, she said no right away. But I was probably a little stupid, so I persisted. And she said, she might miss her family, they might miss her more, but surely, she valued her independence too much to want to go back.

Maybe I understand her a little better now.

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