Looking behind the veil

Graphic novels portray an Iranian girl's journey into womanhood

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A book of cartoons might not seem like the most expressive way to tell a complex tale about growing up during the rise of a strict Islamic regime. But in the hands of Marjane Satrapi, simple pen-and-ink sketches offer an improvement over words. In her graphic novels, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, Satrapi breaks down the stereotypes and explains what it’s like to be Iranian.

In the late 1970s, mass social unrest bubbled to the surface in Iran, once known as Persia, because many Iranians were unhappy with life under the Shah, the country’s leader, who was felt to be a capitalist and ruthless puppet of the West. In early 1979, the Shah fled, the government was overthrown and the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned and took power.

Although it was a people’s revolution, with Khomeini came a strict religious conservatism. Khomeini’s followers banned Western influences and forced women to wear the veil. Members of the secular left were imprisoned and killed. Then, in 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, starting a war that lasted eight years.

Persepolis I describes an Iran in flux from a child’s viewpoint. She describes the clash between idealistic revolutionaries and the reality of a new Islamic nation, which outsiders saw as extremist. The revolution and its aftermath was the backdrop to Satrapi’s childhood. In Persepolis I, young Marjane plays make-believe, pretending to be Che Guevara discussing politics with Fidel Castro and Leon Trotsky. She vies for the forbidden — a Kim Wilde poster smuggled from Turkey by her parents — and grows increasingly rebellious, until at age 14 her parents send her to Austria to finish school.

Satrapi makes it clear that not everyone — including her family and their friends — appreciated the new religious rules. At the book’s start, 10-year-old Marjane explains that girls at her school were very confused when they were made to wear the veil. The little girls are depicted using the veil to play jump rope and pretending to be monsters. A few pages later, Marjane’s mother is shown with other women protesting against the veil, and then worrying for her safety when her photograph is published in European newspapers.

In both books, Satrapi’s often-witty drawings and dialogue take the historical events of her memory — revolution, war, and religion — and show them through the eyes of a child, teenager, and finally, university student, capturing all the emotions that accompany the coming of age.

Persepolis 2 picks up where the first book left off: A 14-year-old Marjane finds herself alone in Austria, fighting between her desire to fit in and a fear that she is losing her Iranian identity. She also suffers a few indignities: She’s accused of stealing, ejected from a boyfriend’s home by his mother and called dirty because of her nationality. After four years, she returns home, even though she knows it means losing the freedoms she’s enjoyed.

The second book is essentially one big identity crisis for Marjane. The things she rebelled against before she left Iran the first time have only grown worse now that she is older. She has to deal with a fundamentalist culture that doesn’t allow her to look at a man, even when she’s supposed to be drawing him for an art class.

Eventually, though, she discovers what she returned to find: how she can leave Iran without losing the Iran she loves.

In the introduction to the first Persepolis, Satrapi writes that, since the 1979 revolution, “this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth.”

The Persepolis series, in a way, represents the will of the Persian people to survive their country’s many foreign invaders and maintain their true identity; the real Persepolis was the capital of ancient Persia.

With her books, Satrapi reminds us that what we know about a foreign country, religion and culture rarely tells the whole story. Like any memoir, Persepolis is only as objective as the author’s point of view; but in an era when conflicts in the Middle East are becoming increasingly intense and Western understanding and acceptance of these nations and their people is becoming a murkier prospect, Satrapi’s tale couldn’t come at a better time.

Alexandra R. Moses writes about arts for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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