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.

Book Review: We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer

A few years ago, in my philosophy course on Animal Rights, our professor had us read and discuss Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer’s exploration of factory farming and the ethical dilemma he found (and still finds) himself in with regards to cutting meat 100 percent out of his diet. From what I can remember (I’d probably have to go back and read the book despite reading it several times in that one course) Eating Animals mainly talks about the ethical implications of factory farming and how factory farming puts these animals in cruel conditions. In We Are the Weather, published this very year, it goes to another level to talk about the impact of factory farming on the planet. This book attracted me because he forces us to sit back and reflect on not just factory farming and global warming, but on the deeper meanings behind our actions, like in Part 2 he gives these disturbing statistics about climate change and the average carbon footprint, and the ways in which factory farming contributes to increased greenhouse gas production and, in turn, higher climate temperatures. He also talks earlier in the book about the film An Inconvenient Truth (the film that inspired me to go on a save-the-planet movement when I was in middle school). But then in Part 3, “Only Home”, he talks about the concept of home and how it relates to the ways we treat the planet. In one of the chapters of Part 3, called “Mortgaging the Home”, he talks about how his family was just one of many American families with the “American Dream” mindset, where his grandparents’ house was larger than his parents’ house, and how his house is larger than his parents’ house. The “American Dream” dictates that one’s lifestyle should be more expansive than that of one’s parents, but now that climate change is worsening and people are using more resources than the planet can provide, we have to ask ourselves: is The American Dream sustainable? What do we have to lose by sacrificing it? Foer talks about the debt that many Americans have: credit card, student loans, car debt, mortgages, but he takes it to another level by forcing us to think about the debt we owe to our only real home, Planet Earth. He says in the beginning of the chapter that we will need four planets to sustain the average American lifestyle for all 7.5 billion and counting people on the planet, while in other countries that are less affluent, we would only need one planet or so to do that.

I have lately been reading about lifestyle inflation and never thought that our planet would live long enough to still sustain the kind of lifestyles that the American Dream pressures us to pursue. I am fine living below my means, but I can’t speak for everyone since everyone has different goals and situations. But this book left me with this bittersweet feeling of, like, I am hopeful that we will mitigate what we’ve done to the planet, and at the same time I think about all the species that have gone extinct and the communities that have to deal with the worsening effects of climate change (coastal places mainly). I am a vegan, but I also drive a car to work, I keep my phone on everyday, and I have flown a lot in the past on planes and still crave that spirit of travel. I also try to compost and not waste too much food, since I watched the documentary Wasted and realized that being vegan by itself wasn’t going to cut down on greenhouse gases if all the food I ate was being thrown away in the trash so it could go and rot on a landfill and emit even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Part of me wants to start a composting program at my workplace, but since I have composted before, I can tell you that it attracts a lot of critters and that wouldn’t necessarily be good for the firm’s business. Still, I get sad when our office manager has to throw out all this uneaten fruit at the end of the day, and no matter how much fruit I try to take home I know it won’t fit my tiny Pyrex container. So you can only do so much.

I guess I gelled with Foer’s book because in Buddhism, we talk about karma, and how it means that we create karma through our thoughts, actions and words each day, but from Nichiren Buddhism, yes, our karma is deep but we don’t have to be fatalistic and think it’s the end of the world. We can transform this karma not just through chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo but also through taking actions in our daily lives to transform the effects of this karma. In a way, as a collective of individuals we have created a social karma through setting up these institutions and systems that perpetuate discrimination and consumerism. And Foer recognizes that people who say we should stop eating meat and flying aren’t being super practical, and also that this perspective might as well be saying that we should become “air-a-tarians” and abstain from having fun altogether. But he also recognizes that the far end of the perspective, aka cynicism, won’t help. He writes a lot about hopelessness and suicide in the last part of his book, and suicide being one of the leading causes of death, but that we need to still have hope even at a time when we don’t know how we’ll adapt to global warming. He says that we can’t just sit back and pray for stuff to happen, but instead, we can take action

“by having honest conversations. bridging the familiar with the unfamiliar, planting messages for the future, digging up messages from the past, digging up messages from the future, disputing with our souls and refusing to stop. And we must do this together: everyone’s hand wrapped around the same pen, every breath of everyone exhaling the shared prayer.”

Foer, We Are The Weather, page 224

We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. Jonathan Safran Foer. 272 pp. 2019.

What Jameela Jamil Can Teach Us About Being an Activist

In this interview on The Daily Show, Trevor Noah talks with Jameela Jamil, actress on The Good Place, about her social activism. One thing that really stuck with me about the interview was Jameela’s ability to take criticism when it came to having discussions around injustice. When people have told her she didn’t include a certain marginalized group in her activism or corrected her on things she has said as an activist, she accepts it and then strives to do better. Trevor asks her if it gets tiring to have this happen, and Jameela says that no, it’s not tiring because activism is about progress, not being perfect. And I think it’s important to remind ourselves of this when we do activism. I’m an activist, too, but not a perfect activist. I have said some pretty ignorant things in the past about race, class and gender, and many times when people would call me out on it, I would shut myself away and feel guilty about it. One time I said something racist, and I had made this racist joke in the past, and my friend corrected me on it later in life, and then I made the joke a second time even though they told me it was wrong. Finally they unpacked for me why my joke was racist, and afterwards I took it personally and dwelled on it, like “Wow, I am so racist, so ignorant, no one is going to talk to me now.” But after a while, I had to realize that what’s in the past is in the past, and the only solution was to watch what I say next time and educate myself better. I appreciate the classes I took on philosophy and Africana Studies so I could educate myself and also learn from other people’s perspectives. Even though at the time I didn’t like being corrected or called out for saying something incorrect, looking back, I appreciate the opportunities I had to have these discussions.

And it reminded me of a conversation I was having with a white acquaintance of mine, and she was recounting all of these stories about anti-black racism, and we were in the lunch line and she recounted this awful experience her black friend had to go through. She recounted the story word for word, even verbalizing the slur that the guy called her friend. Of course, I got rather tense when she said the slur (the n-word) because it has such a loaded history and even when people aren’t directly calling you that and are just quoting something someone said, it still freaks me out a little when I hear that word, which is why I don’t say it. But then the friend went on about how she feels so bad, so guilty, so terrible for being white, and sucking in my cheeks and trying to remain calm, I asked her, “How will you constructively process this white guilt you feel?” And from there, our conversation got better and I guess I lifted the burden off her shoulders. Now, of course, this friend would continue to ask me to educate her on my experiences with encountering racism, and I could have told her to talk about something else (like, “Let’s lift this white guilt burden off your shoulders and talk about, let’s say, the new show on HBO that’s coming out). But her white guilt taught me that as an ally, even from a marginalized group myself, I need to own my class privilege. What am I going to do when I talk to my friends from low-income backgrounds, just ruminate about how guilty I feel for being middle class? How is that even productive? Whenever I said something classist, I felt guilty at first and would often not talk to my friends for fear I would say something ignorant again, but as time went on, I realized that I’m not perfect and no one else is either. Like Jameela said, you need to own your mistake and move on. Cancelling someone doesn’t give people the chance to have dialogue. Then again, if someone repeatedly does stuff that is racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, or transphobic (I’m leaving out a lot of other -ics and -ists, so please forgive me) you have to wonder if their apologies are actually genuine or they are just not wanting to have an honest conversation about their ignorance.

This is one of the few times I have heard someone talk about how no one is perfect in activism and we are all improving. Cancel culture is very real, but after I watched the interview I reflected on how it has affected opportunities to have dialogue with one another. I have learned to be more careful about what I say, but also to not take comments personally if I say the wrong thing or mess up. I am still working on how I react when I mess up in these social activism conversations, but I’m glad I am working on it because it’s part of the process and instead of feeling guilty about what I said, I should appreciate the opportunity I have to learn from the other person, to do better. I should also appreciate opportunities I have to speak up when someone says something offensive because many people of color in history have had to fight hard so people like me could have the platforms for speaking out against injustice.

Anyway, I recommend you watch this interview.