The black and white world of Marjane Satrapi

In the past week i’ve watched the film Persepolis and read the book on which the film is based. This is the autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, who was around ten years old when the Iranian Revolution took place, ultimately bringing the Islamists to power. In both the book and the film she describes the initial optimism of her middle class but left leaning family. It sounds almost absurd now but it seems many such people seriously expected Iran to become a Communist state.

For Marjane, her family and for many other Iranians the actual outcome was a tragedy: her Uncle Anouche ended up executed, the Iran-Iraq war claimed the deaths of thousands of young men and the women of Iran, Marjane included, found that they were expected to dress and behave according to the dictates of the Islamists’ puritanical code.

I don’t dispute any of this. What i do find puzzling is that nowhere in either book or film is there any consideration of what Iran’s fate would have been if the Communists had come to power. Are we to imagine there would have been no executions of political opponents by the Communists, no curtailments of freedom? Maybe Marjane’s family would not have experienced these things. If they were part of or connected to the ruling elite – rather than in opposition to it – then perhaps they would have been protected. But another family might have suffered – an Islamist family perhaps?

Uncle Anouche, the most important Communist ‘character’, is a weary, gentle man. He is also a survivor of torture under the oppressive regime of the Shah. Of course we warm to him but surely, among those who returned from the prisons, there were also weary, gentle Islamist men? The point is: it’s rarely these naive individuals who end up in power, but rather their harder, much less innocent comrades.

In fact, even Uncle Anouche shows us a glimpse of something which doesn’t seem to sit right with his talk of democracy. In a conversation with little Marjane he tells her about his uncle Fereydoon who “proclaimed the independence of the Iranian province of Azerbaijan” and “elected himself Minister of Justice in this new little republic”. Elected himself?”

I wonder what Marjane’s feelings about freedom and leftist politics would have been if the Communists had taken power? Would she still have left? Would she have ended up an apologist for the regime? Or would she have eventually rejected it, just as some Iranian Islamists have rejected the Islamist regime? Might she even have rejected leftist politics altogether? (Note if you’re reading this that i’m not judging the left or the right. I am suspicious of all politicians).

Those who have never had power do have this sad luxury: if you have never had the chance to act then your actions by definition cannot be judged. But Marjane Satrapi, the adult, has lived abroad and seen other countries, other regimes, other possibilities, yet she never shows any awareness of this issue. The politics of Persepolis are as black and white as the illustrations themselves.

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2 thoughts on “The black and white world of Marjane Satrapi

  1. Watching Persepolis the film of Marjane Satrapi’s time growing up in Tehran, part of fundamentalist Iran, I felt was a reasonably good and a fairly enjoyable way to spend a bit of leisure time. It portrays the people of Iran as being subservient and very fearful of the fundamentalist Muslim based ideology laid down by the oppressive government and shows Marjane as someone who pretends to be servile and obedient to the rules of expected behaviour in her country and yet deliberately trying to buck the system and be outwardly against it (all be it when she thinks she can get away with it).
    I think that when the film starts Marjane’s youthful need to be different from that which is around her and her need to buck the system is endearing, but let’s face it no different from children everywhere. For me, the fact that the majority of the society in which she lives is severely oppressed, with many people tortured and many men conscripted to fight ultimately to their deaths in the Middle eastern war never really hits home in the film adaptation of the book. It’s far too childish in its adaptation. Yes, Marjane was young when this was initially happening, but she struck me as being very naïve and she doesn’t seem to be that directly affected by it Later when Marjane goes to Vienna and succumbs to the western notion of late teenage life – drugs, sexuality and politics, it’s never portrayed as being that significant and it’s no wonder she longs for family and home – Anything to halt the boredom! (Real oppression and struggle is far more exciting let’s face it than mere teen angst) The fact that she only runs home when she is sexually betrayed just proves how childish she is. Marjane is from a middle-class background and the whole of her growing-up just seems to be the whinge of an over-privileged girl who doesn’t realise that other girls and women from her country are in a far less fortunate position and really suffering. Even when the death of her uncle is revealed to her, she seems more concerned that her family hadn’t told her the truth than the fact that he was dead.
    This book doesn’t really address the nature of Iran or the Islamic revolution there and goes only a little way to describing the condition of women in the country – oppressed by men, left illiterate and dependant on the state.
    So let’s give her some credit what has she achieved by this film is showing the duality of Iran, describing a little of what goes on there culturally, maybe. But I felt this was more like a child’s comic book primer on the simplistic politics of a Middle Eastern country and not any more enlightening than that! In the end Marjane has not ‘really’ fought for her country, petitioned in any great way for change or told the west anything it didn’t already know.
    Marjane has simply moved to the west and sold her simplistic story to cash in and make money from those less fortunate than herself who are not in a position to leave Iran. She is squandering her middle-class education and intelligence, when she could be making a real difference. In my opinion the reason why people in the west have lapped-up her story is because of their need to seem sympathetic in these times of much Iranian and Muslim suspicion, rather than because the content of the film is really note worthy.

    • This was a great comment. I just haven’t had time to think through a reply to you (and it deserves a thought out reply).

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