With Open Eyes: Glimpsing Iranian Culture Through a Graphic Novel

Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Paris: L'Association, 2003.

persepolis.jpgGrowing up in Iran during the 1970’s, Marjane Satrapi’s life seems very much like our own: western, materialistic, and relatively free. Life in Iran under the Shah was difficult for those deemed to be enemies of the state, but those who did not criticize the Shah had money, family, and relative freedom to live their lives as they chose. When the Shah was deposed in early 1979, religious clerics and radical conservatives seized power. Sweeping change was at hand.

Marjane’s family is descended from the Emperor, who was deposed by the father of the Shah in 1925. Her grandfather served briefly as Prime Minister, but soon became a communist and perennial political prisoner in the Reza Shah regime. Her parents grew up during the Shah’s reign, witnessing both the relaxed, Westernized materialist culture and the brutality of the Shah’s secret police. Many of their friends, family members, and acquaintances were arrested and imprisoned; a number were savagely tortured. Marjane was sheltered from many of these realities until after the Islamic Revolution.

As the revolution gained momentum, Marjane’s parents joined the demonstrations against the Shah, but after an initial period of relief from the Shah’s police state, they found the Revolutionary Council to be just as oppressive. Women were made to veil themselves in public, while alcohol and Western objects were forbidden.

Marjane does not respond well to the strict laws put forth by the regime. Like most young women her age, Marjane is searching for personal identity and individuality. She is testing the waters to see what she can and can not get away with. While this is a normal and safe growing process for many young women (especially adolescents living in America), Marjane's experimentation is life threatening and risky.

She first runs into these problems in school. In class, Marjane’s free spirit and stubbornness causes her and her family trouble. She rebels against school regulations by mocking ceremonial practices that are done in respect to the war. Marjane also wears jewelry to school (something that is absolutely forbidden), and refuses to follow the customs and rules that govern her school. As a result, Marjane is expelled and eventually kicked out of the schools that she attends.

While Marjane’s free sprit is a threat to her education, as she grows older her thirst for individualism causes her much more trouble. With the coming of her teen years, Marjane begins skipping classes, smoking, and taking part in other risky activities. These actions put her in much danger, and while she is raised in a free and open minded household, the government does not hold the same values.

Everyday Marjane sees death and injustice in her community. Between the death of her uncle and her neighbors home being boomed, Marjane realizes that her community is not a safe place. She is a young, free spirited girl trying to live her life as a normal adolescent. Unfortunately, her country does not give her room to grow and learn. Instead she lives a life of threats and consequence. Marjane’s parents recognize their daughter’s free spirit and are uneasy about the situations that she puts herself in. Knowing their daughters fearless behavior and strong will, Marjane's parents are faced with a very tough decision. Marjane’s parents need to decide if it is in their daughter’s best interest to send her away. Her safety is certainly at stake and her home is a haven for war and hatred. The question is, do they send their daughter away to secure her safety, or do they take the risk of keeping her in their dangerous village?

This novel is a look behind the veil (so to speak) of the lives of the citizens of Iran during the Islamic Revolution, the consolidation of power of the Islamic Clerics, and the Iran-Iraq War, and how the realities of daily living failed to square with the rhetoric of both regimes. It gives voice to those who pushed back against the hypocrisies of a religious regime that brutalized its citizens as horrifically as the secular government it replaced. This story also offers insight into the struggles that many adolescents faced during the Shah regime. What is meant to be a time of experimentation and personal growth, is instead of time of meekness and invisibility. This story looks beyond the surface of the Iranion Revolution and introduces the harsh truths that exist. Persepolis is a novel about understanding, fear and loss. It is a harsh reality that gives readers a truthful perspective about the suffering and injustices that coexist with the Iranian Revolution.

The book should be read by every student today, especially given the trajectory of events that have left America and Iran on a possible collision course in the coming years. Understanding is something that will be achieved throughout reading this novel; an understanding of the lives and struggles of others. Overall, this book is a rewarding and truthful representation of life in Iran in the 70's and 80's. In short, it is a MUST READ!

Recommendations for Teachers

The following is a list of motifs, themes, and discussion topics that appear within the graphic novel Persepolis. This by no means represents a complete list, but a representation of a few important ideas that teachers can use to engage their students and encourage deeper understanding. After each discussion of the topic there follows a short section on discussion ideas and possible assignments.

Culture: Persepolis portrays the culture of revolutionary Iran through the eyes of a young girl. This cultural difference is one of the first things that students will probably recognize about Persepolis. This is understandable because, for many students, this will be their very first exposure with a cultural work from the Middle East. Most students' ideas about Iran have been created by American culture and, for many students, countries like Iran, Iraq, and Saudia Arabia are a single entity called “The Middle East” which has become synonymous with terrorism, fanaticism, war, and Al-Qaeda. Encountering a very personal and human memoir like Persepolis is a way for students to be exposed to a side of Iran and the Middle East that they have never thought of before. For many students the experiences of Marjane and her family will be shocking not because they are so different, but because they are so similar to their own family and the complete opposite of their stereotypes.
Discussion/Teaching Ideas: Drawing comparisons between cultures, speaking about similarities and differences, are all important ways to help students enter and understand the culture of Iran. Exposing students to Iranian works of art, poetry, and music will also help students gain an appreciation of Iranian culture.

Coming of Age: Another aspect that can be explored through the text is the theme of “coming of age”. Marjane grows up during a complicated and difficult time. When the book begins, she a child, and when it ends she is 14. She deals with death, bombing, fear and torture throughout the book, yet, Michael Jackson, Kim Wild, and designer jeans consume her thoughts. She is deeply changed and influenced by the revolution; yet, she remains a young girl trying to find herself. This is a common aspect of literature and it is one that many students will be able to relate to. Marjane represents many traits that students can see reflecting in themselves. She is, among many things, rebellious, brave, imaginative, loyal, and caring. The book ends with Marjane moving to Austria at age 14, alone.
Discussion/Teaching Ideas: Students can draw comparisons between themselves and Marjane, they could put themselves in her place, leaving her country alone at age 14. They could discuss how growing up in a revolutionary atmosphere could affect someone. Students could think of a time that they felt scared when trying something new. Students could discuss what it means to “come of age” and if they felt as if they have had any moments in their lives that they see as especially important or defining.

Revolutions: Another idea that would be interesting to explore is the idea of the Revolution. Marjane lives through the Islamic revolution, which was political, social, and religious in nature. It changed life in Iran completely and played a huge part in Marjane’s life. The revolution affected, among many things, the availability and acceptance of foreign culture, women’s rights, economic practices, and education. Marjane see’s this change and throughout the narrative tries to grapple with and understand what the revolution means to her, her family, and her country.
Discussion/Teaching Ideas: The idea of the Revolution is an important idea, and one that is an important part of our own American mythology. Students could think of and discuss various revolutions and what causes, outcomes, forms, and methods revolutions and revolutionaries can take. They could discuss when revolutions are justified, or not justified, and what the ideal of a revolution is.

Graphic Novel: Another important topic of discussion is the form of the graphic novel. Satrapi tells her compelling tale in the form of a graphic novel with very simple yet poignant drawings. These drawings, despite their simple nature, portray a vast amount of otherwise disturbing, joyful, and difficult moments in her life.
Discussion/Teaching Idea: The legitimacy of graphic novels as a work of literature has become more acceptable in recent years. Why has this happened? Discussion questions include. What does the graphic novel form give to Persepolis that a normal novel couldn’t? Why did Satrapi decide to go with such stark, black and white illustrations? What might this represent? How do the words and art work together? These questions are good ways to start a discussion on the form of the graphic novel. An interesting assignment would be for students to draw animations to a different novel. Students would have to decide what idea each illustration is trying to portray, and what message it is trying to send. They would have to think about what form, viewpoint, and tone the illustrations would take.

Stereotyping: The idea of stereotyping is an issue that teachers can use to help students think deeply about the text. As written earlier, most students have certain perceptions about Iran and the Middle East in general. The area is heavily stereotyped by American culture and this text can be used to help students understand that the portrayal of Iranians and Middle Easterners by our culture is much different than the reality. Marjane and her family are simply wonderful, normal, and loving individuals stuck in a difficult time. In most aspects they are exactly like us, trying to survive as best they can while relying on family and friendship to do the best they can. It is a important thing for students to understand how easy it is to stereotype a whole group of people.
Discussion/Teaching Ideas: There are many places a teacher could go on this topic. Using the media, the teacher could ask how the media portrays Middle Easterners and Iranians. They could have students discuss their own stereotypes. The class could discuss why people stereotype, what are the results of stereotyping, and what people across the world (or country) stereotype them as.

Racism: Race is has a strong presence throughout this book, prominently in the conflict between the Persian nation Iran and the Arabic nation of Iraq. Tensions between these two countries flare up and result in an all out war. This war is the back drop of many of the events and tragedies in the book.
Discussion/ Teaching Ideas: As a launching point for racial conflict teachers could explore not only the racial conflicts in the book but also those which surround the students themselves. With the students identifying with Marjane it would be an excellent time to invite the students to discuss and challenge their notions of race by explaining how they feel about the characters in the book.

Aspects of Religion: Because of the nature of the revolution in the book, one that is both cultural and political, religion plays an extremely large part in the novel. Though the novel is told from the point of view of a child she experiences the repercussions of a changing society first hand; and perhaps because of her innocence she is confused.
Discussion/ Teaching Ideas: While reading this novel students will encounter many of the stereotypes they have learned from the media. Thus it is the job of the teacher to address issues like religious fanaticism and religious fundamentalism. Discussions about religion in politics both in the story and in other places around the world would help students to better understand the role of religion on the world stage.

Family: this plays a large part in the novel. Marjane’s family helps her to understand all the changes happening around her. As such the idea of family should be discussed.
Discussion/ Teaching Ideas: Discuss the importance of family in the novel and its roll in helping Marjane make sense of what is occurring around her. Also it might help students to talk about families and culture; starting with the role their families in their lives and then the different roles families play in other cultures.

Red Flags: This book deals with many important and tough issues. Depending on the age of your students you may wish to either omit the passages dealing with torture or at the very least talk about it with your students. Also the discussion of religion may have to be limited to just its role in the book depending on your students and your school district.

About Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi was born in 1969 in Iran and grew up in Tehran. She was educated at the Lycee Francias before going to school in Vienna, Austria and later on in Strasbourg, France, where she studied illustration.

Satrapi began to formulate the idea to write her story as a graphic novel after moving to Paris, where she was introduced to graphic novelists. She first began to see the comic book or graphic novel as a serious literary medium after reading Art Spiegelman's Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust.

Persepolis was originally published in France, where it generated much critical acclaim and won several comic book awards. Since then, Persepolis has been published in several different languages. Other books that Satrapi has written include Embroideries, Chicken with Plums, and the children's book Monsters are Afraid of the Moon. Persepolis was made into an animated film in 2007 and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008.

Satrapi now lives in Paris, where she continues to write and where her illustrations can be seen on a regular basis in newspapers and magazines.

Biographical information and picture courtesy of: Lousiana State Universityand the IFC.


The following is an excerpt from an interview in which Marjane Satrapi discusses the portrayal of Iran and the human element that is found in the story of Persepolis. This is from a 2007 New York Film Festival press conference for the animated film version of the book.

The following is the movie trailer for the animated film version of Persepolis.

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--This page was created by: Branden Garner, Adam Kennedy, Elizabeth Longcore, Blaine Sullivan, and Becca Thebo.
Other reviews by these authors: Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers.

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