Why Persepolis is Both a Must-See and a Must-Read in 2020

In 2007, the film Persepolis came out. When I saw the trailer, I really wanted to go see it, but so many other movies caught my attention at the time that I never got around to it. I also had seen the book before, but never got around to checking it out from the library or buying it at the bookstore. So this time, I decided I wanted to check it out, and I was able to score a copy. I devoured the book like the best dish in the world. Persepolis, if you haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet, is a comic book (Marjane Satrapi, the author, prefers that her graphic novels are called comic books because there’s so much stigma around the word “comic book”. I agree.) about Satrapi’s life growing up during a tumultuous political time in her home country Iran and her adolescence in Vienna, where her family sends her so she can escape the trauma of war between Iraq and Iran. The book was enlightening because I remember studying about Iran during World Geography, and Persepolis was on the list of recommended movies for the course, but I forgot most of what we learned in the course about Ayatollah Khomeini and the U.S. involvement with affairs in Iran and Iraq, as well as the history of Iran and how the West’s invasion of Iran influenced its economy (Britain invaded Iran for its oil, and then later ended up joining America and the Soviet Union in bullying Reza Shah, Iran’s ruler, into going against the Germans to side with them and then later organized an embargo on all oil exported from Iran).

As I continued to read Persepolis, I couldn’t help but think about how important this book is even though she wrote Part 1 in 2002 and Part 2 in 2004. More than a decade later, relations between the U.S., Iraq and Iran are getting tenser. In the film, Marjane is seen walking around wearing her hijab, but also wearing a jean jacket with a button of Michael Jackson on it and the back of her jacket reads “Punk is Not Ded”. Two women who are part of a group who arrest women who are improperly veiled target Marjane, calling Michael Jackson “that symbol of decadence”. While Marjane returns from the tense encounter unscathed, it showed me how complicated the relations between Iran and the West were (and still are). In the introduction to the novel, Marjane tells the reader that it’s important that she wrote this book about her life because many people associate Iran with fundamentalists and terrorists, but in doing so, they are forgetting that so many Iranians spoke out against oppression and fought for the good of the people, and so we can’t judge an entire population based on a few individuals who oppose justice.

Reading Persepolis and watching the film adaptation also reminded me that I need to be more aware of what is going on in the world. When a top Iranian general Quasem Soleimani was recently killed in a U.S. airstrike last week, I just scrolled through articles about his death because I thought it was too stressful to read. When it was revealed that the Iranian government lied to its citizens about its military striking down a Ukrainian plane with more than 100 people on it, again, I scrolled past the news stories about it. When I heard about the following student demonstrations against the government in Iran, I once again scrolled past. But after reading Persepolis, I came to understand that my apathetic scrolling was just me coming from a privileged Westerner’s perspective where I never have to deal with what Iranian citizens are going through. I have never lived through war. My family never had to live through war. Marjane Satrapi is just one of many Iranian people who lived through war, which is why she doesn’t get why her privileged friends in Vienna complain about their privileged lives. One guy in particular, named Momo, tells her that life and everything means nothing, and that more people need to realize this so they can live truly great lives. She calls him out by telling him that this is absolute bullshit because there are people who give their lives to fighting for freedom and justice, such as her family during the Revolution. I’d probably call Momo out on his bullshit, too, speaking as a Nichiren Buddhist who believes everyone has a purpose in life and that fighting for justice is important. He counteracts by telling her that those people fighting for freedom are just doing it as a way to keep themselves busy (to “distract” themselves), and she shuts him up by asking him if he thinks her uncle Anoosh, who died speaking out against the government’s oppression of its people, died to distract himself. This is a powerful moment in the second part of the novel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. This interaction between Marjane and Momo is one of many powerful moments, and it taught me that I need to educate myself more on what’s going on in Iran and its political history rather than believing the vitriol that the U.S. president tweets about it.

I was sitting in the lunchroom at work while reading Book 1 of Persepolis, and when I finished it I broke down crying not just because of the incredible illustrations but also because Marjane’s life story is just so poignant, especially speaking as someone who has never had to live through war or had to worry about leaving my house for fear of the government cracking down on me. Yes, sure, America has its own issues, but a lot of us take for granted that we can get on Twitter and call out our president on his nonsense, while in some countries outside the U.S. like Hong Kong, speaking out will get you tear-gassed and beaten with batons. Reading Persepolis also taught me the importance of knowing your family history and of memory. Uncle Anoosh, when telling Marjane about his life, tells her before she goes to bed that he is telling her these stories about her family’s past so that she doesn’t forget them. When we forget our roots, we can get easily influenced by what other people or the media say about our country or our people, but when we remember our family history and individuals in our family who had to live through torture, war, genocide and other trauma, it stays with us and then we can tell future generations what happened so that hopefully they can change the trajectory of what’s going to happen (i.e. help history hopefully not repeat itself, which it has done too many times).

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (English translation published in 2003). 153 pp. and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (English version published in 2004). 187 pp.

Persepolis (film). 2007. 1 hr 36 min. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including violent images, sexual references, language and brief drug content.

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