I have long envied the seductive power of cinema which unites, in such a potentially explosive and irresistible form, the mysterious allure of sound combined with image.
But the deceptively silent written word has its charms as well. And when combined with deceptively simple drawings—black and white comic book drawings—it’s as if the potential fluency and eloquence of the written word becomes unleashed, or untethered, or merely let go, like a helium balloon in the fist of a child who opens their hand just to see what will happen next.
The first, and so far only, graphic novel I have read provided me with a crash course in the merits of the form. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis tells an important—and in many ways both universal and essential—story the world needs to hear, particularly now, at this crucial juncture in the history of human civilization.
Born one decade before the 1979 Iranian Revolution and into a culture whose unsevered roots stretch back thousands of years Marjane Satrapi was, like so many Iranians, simultaneously blessed and cursed.
Persepolis tells the tale of that dubious privilege, of the trials of being a young and inquisitive and determined woman in a society ruled by Islamic fanatics (and here, in this context, the word ‘fanatics’ is le mot juste) determined to undermine the true strength of the nation by imposing on its courageous people a foreign ideology.
Since 1979 Iran has become not only a pariah state, as far as the West is concerned, but an even more complex puzzle for Western minds and governments. The irony of Donald Trump condemning Iran as a terrorist state in a speech delivered in Saudi Arabia sums up both our collective ignorance and our stubborn refusal to even look and see.
But that is precisely what Persepolis allows us to do, should we be willing. To look and see, often through the eyes of a child!
In an often charming and witty and mordant and self-abnegating autobiographical story—which happens to roughly coincide with the unfortunate history of the modern state of Iran—Satrapi tells a very complete story, that of any woman anywhere suffering at the hands of stupid men, that of a rich cultural heritage being plowed under and overlaid with the stinking asphalt of Islamic Law. Persepolis tells the story of one absurdity after another, of fundamental contradictions in both human nature and the society we fashion in an image of ourselves, and the long suffering of the Iranian people who have had to endure not only thirty-eight years of Islamic dictatorship but—at the very beginning of that sad and terrible period of institutionalized human rights abuses in the name of a higher Authority—the eight years of war with Iraq which, among all the many atrocities committed, left an estimated 50-100,000 Iranians dead as a consequence of exposure to chemical weapons alone.
These atrocities and this suffering provide the backdrop to Satrapi’s coming of age story, but they are not its only concern. What is remarkable about the graphic novel form—at least in this case—is the way comic book drawings combined with captions allow Satrapi to treat the blackest events with equally dark humor and the most humorous events with the agony and angst of teenage despair.
Persepolis is like an animated encyclopedia of the Iranian people. It is not merely the story of an alien religious creed being imposed on a people with a history longer than those monotheistic beliefs, it is the story of everyone, everywhere. Satrapi’s treatment of her life in exile—during part of the war with Iraq—provides the reader with a glimpse of what happens when East meets West. What happens is not exceptional, but only what goes on everywhere. And yet providing the reader with scene after scene of one Iranian woman’s experience provides the reader with the nuance (contained sometimes in a speech bubble with nothing but three dots in it: …) of the experience of anyone anywhere forced to deal with the injustices of ignorance, barbarity, sexism and plain cruelty.
I think that Persepolis should be required reading for every American (an unlikely prospect!) because our collective cluelessness about a country and people as fascinating and complex as the Iranians, and as much like us as anyone else is (save for their relative sophistication), is a real threat to the stability and peace of the world. After all, as Robert G. Ingersoll put it, “Ignorance is the only slavery.”
p.s. for those of you who would rather watch Persepolis it is available on film (with English subtitles). Take a look at this trailer.
Photo by Alborzagros – File:Nations Gate palace (kakh-e-darvaz-e-keshvarha) in Persepolis.tif (edited version), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45347465