Issue Date: February 11, 2005
Memoir depicts authors childhood in Tehran
Reviewed by JEFF SEVERNS GUNTZEL
I started reading Marjane Satrapis 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, were going to have the Iranian campaign, a former high-level intelligence official told Mr. Hersh. Weve declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy. This is the last hurrah -- weve 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. Im 30 now, and it still continues.
Ms. Satrapi does not accept the equation. She cant. 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, Its too hot! Another fashions a jump rope from multiple veils. Give me my veil back, one girl demands. Youll have to lick my feet! the rope jumper replies.
Persepolis is a story told in vignettes with powerful economy: Her family celebrates the shahs 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 cant 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, Ive been faithful to the religion. If its come to this Well, I cant believe in anything anymore.
Ms. Satrapis book is layer upon layer of tragedy, complexity and even comedy. I should mention: This book is a graphic novel. Thats right: a comic.
Graphic novels are not traditional literature, Ms. Satrapi explains on her publishers 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. Wed see pieces about Iran on television, but they didnt represent my experience at all. I had to keep saying, No, its not like that there. Ive been justifying why it isnt 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005
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