I enjoy reading. It’s a family tradition. Shopping for us is buying books wherever we are. I love books and being surrounded by books so it’s no surprise that I like going to the library – Singapore libraries are fantastic – and Borders and Kinokuniya, the haven of bibliophiles. So when a friend suggested I pick up Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi there was no hesitation on my part until he added, “It’s a graphic novel.” And that’s when I vacillated – I have problems reading bubbles. I read lines in the balloons but I forget to look at the illustrations. The last graphic novel I read was about a Filipino superhero – he turned into Super Girl after swallowing a magical stone.
But I breezed through bubble reading with Persepolis. The black-and-white illustrations were straightforward in its depiction of Satrapi’s childhood in Iran. They didn’t overshadow the wit, sarcasm and irony of the child, teenager and, finally, adult, as one followed her personal history, which was inextricably linked to her country’s history. It was Iran’s history in comics.
It begins with The Veil where the author/artist is 10 years old and is wearing the veil in 1980 in school. A revolution occurred in Iran a year before; a year later the revolution was called Islamic Revolution in which it became mandatory to wear the veil to school. The next frame read, “We didn’t really like to wear the veil, especially since we didn’t understand why we had to” [page 3] and the drawings succinctly captured the vacillation. One student decided to play around with by putting it over her face, saying, “Ooh! I’m the monster of darkness.” Another decided to use it as reins– her classmate was the horse and she the equestrienne shouting “Giddy up!” A third classmate decided to tie up all the veils into a skipping rope.
She and her classmates didn’t understand the need for the veil because a year before the revolution they were in a French non-religious school where boys and girls were together. However, a year later, it was announced that “Bilingual schools were to be closed down (as) they were symbols of capitalism, of decadence.”
“This was called a ‘Cultural Revolution’. We found ourselves veiled and separated from our friends,” wrote Satrapi, “And that was that.”
This was also the period that Satrapi decided she wanted to be a prophet. Her teacher was perturbed and called her parents who were not bothered by their daughter’s declaration at all.
In The Water Cell [pages 18 – 25] the reader is privy to Satrapi’s history when her father related her family’s background, revealing their unique place in the historical annals of Iran. [Aside: I’m reminded, for some reason, of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s her family history.]
Father: God did not choose the king…
“The truth is that 50 years ago the Father of the Shah, who was a soldier, organized a putsch to over thrown the emperor and install a republic. At the time the Republican ideal was popular in the region but everybody interpreted it in his own way. For example, Gandhi in India, Ataturk in Turkey.
Father: So the Father of the Shah wanted to do the same. But he wasn’t educated like Gandhi, who was a lawyer or was he a leader of men like Ataturk who was a general.
“He was an illiterate low-ranking officer. A blessing for the very influential British who soon learned of his projects.
British: When you are Emperor, your Secretary of State will shine them for you.
Reza: Emperor, me?
British: But, of course, my friend. It’s much better than being President.
Reza: What do I have to do?
British: Nothing! You just give us the oil and we’ll take care of the rest.
Father: And that’s how he became king and naturally his son succeeded him. God has nothing whatsoever to do with this story…The Emperor that was overthrown was Grandpa’s father.
And since his entourage was uneducated, your Grandpa was named Prime Minister…He had studied in Europe. He was a very cultivated man. He had even read Marx. Once he was sidetracked from his Princely duties he began to meet intellectuals. So he became a communist and he was jailed often.
Mother: Sometimes they put him in a cell filled with water for hours.
The subsequent strips recount Satrapi’s experiences through her growing up years: the Iraqis bombing Iran; the scarcity of food and gasoline; the dislocation of friends and relatives whose houses were destroyed by Iraqi missiles; the prohibition of holding parties and drinking wine; the crackdown on people going against the Islamic code of living; her parents’ decision to send her to Austria in 1984 to “escape a religious Iran for an open and secular Europe” and the discovery that her mother’s best friend, Zozo, was not who she thought she would be; her cultural dislocation in Austria and epiphany; her heartaches; and her return to Iran and her decision to leave again.
Satrapi: “…Not having been able to build anything in my own country, I prepared to leave it once again. I went to France for the first time in June 1994 to take a test to enter the school of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg. I was accepted. Then I had to go back to Iran to exchange my tourist visa for a student visa. [page 339]
Between June and September 1994, the date of my definitive departure, I spent every morning wandering in the mountains of Tehran, where I memorized every corner. [page 340]
The graphic novel ends on a bittersweet note. The departure was different from 10 years ago – her mother didn’t faint and her grandmother was there.
Satrapi: “Since the night of September 9, 1994, I only saw (Grandma) once, during the Iranian New Year in March 1995. She died January 4, 1996….Freedom had a price…” [page 341]