Spring Books
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

By Marjane Satrapi
Pantheon, 160 pages, $17.95
This Iranian life

Memoir depicts author’s childhood in Tehran


I started reading Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood on the same day The New Yorker published “The Coming Wars,” an article by the indefatigable investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.

“Next, we’re going to have the Iranian campaign,” a former high-level intelligence official told Mr. Hersh. “We’ve declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy. This is the last hurrah -- we’ve got four years, and want to come out of this saying we won the war on terrorism.”

That equation, Iran = Terror, has been etched into newspaper articles and nightly newscasts since my childhood. I’m 30 now, and it still continues.

Ms. Satrapi does not accept the equation. She can’t. Persepolis is a memoir of her years growing up in Tehran. It opens with a scene from 1980, the year the veil became obligatory at school.

Ms. Satrapi describes the rebel playfulness with which her schoolmates accepted the veil in a scene from the playground. One girl rips hers off, saying, “It’s too hot!” Another fashions a jump rope from multiple veils. “Give me my veil back,” one girl demands. “You’ll have to lick my feet!” the rope jumper replies.

Persepolis is a story told in vignettes with powerful economy: Her family celebrates the shah’s forced exile. A family friend -- and political prisoner under the shah -- is released from prison. Her family, leftist revolutionaries, watch Islamic fundamentalists co-opt their revolution. The new Islamic government shuts down the schools and Ms. Satrapi -- who dreams of being a scientist -- watches her future disappear into a fog.

On vacation in Spain, the family watches a broadcast they can’t understand announcing the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war. Back home, the family maid, Mrs. Nasrine, walks through the door, distraught and holding a plastic key painted gold.

“They gave this to my son at school,” Mrs. Nasrine says. “They told the boys that if they went to war and were lucky enough to die, this key would get them into heaven.

“All my life,” Mrs. Nasrine sobs, “I’ve been faithful to the religion. If it’s come to this … Well, I can’t believe in anything anymore.”

Ms. Satrapi’s book is layer upon layer of tragedy, complexity and even comedy. I should mention: This book is a “graphic novel.” That’s right: a comic.

“Graphic novels are not traditional literature,” Ms. Satrapi explains on her publisher’s Web site, “but that does not mean they are second-rate. Images are a way of writing.”

Living in France, she continues, “I was always telling stories about life in Iran to my friends. We’d see pieces about Iran on television, but they didn’t represent my experience at all. I had to keep saying, ‘No, it’s not like that there.’ I’ve been justifying why it isn’t negative to be Iranian for almost 20 years.”

A second volume of Persepolis was just released. Her timing may be just right.

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is jguntzel@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to:  webkeeper@natcath.org