Marjane Satrapi is no ordinary young woman, she is a full-fledged princess.  And not only a princess, but  what some people might call a “Red princess”;  born into a progressive family, she was reading cartoons about marxism when other children were reading fairy tales. Her maternal grand father was the son of Nasreddine Shah, the last Qadjar emperor of Iran.

Growing up, she was surrounded by relatives and family friends regularly thrown into jail for being communist. The unique child of intellectual parents, she was sent to Europe in the mid-1980s, at the age of 14, to be spared the oppression of an islamic regime then at its worst. Running away from the prejudices of the Iranian mullahs, she was faced with  preconceived ideas held by Europeans on Iran and Islam. Her observations have resulted in a wonderful series of comic strips published under the name “Persepolis”, the first two volumes of which have sold more than 20.000 copies in their French version.

Portrait of Marjane Satrapi

Life for any immigrant is not easy. Your skin color becomes the most obvious thing about you. When Marjane first came to France, it was the same. People took her to be Arabic while she is from Iran. For Europeans, Arabs and Iranians seem to be the same people when they are two distinct entities. Culture, language, food, and, festivals, everything differs. Check this website and get more information about both cultures.

“I wanted to put a few things straight”, explains Marjane from her studio at Place des Vosges, one  the oldest district of Paris. “When I arrived in France, I met many people who expected me to speak Arabic. So many Europeans do not know the difference between Arabs and Iranians. They don’t know anything of our centuries-old culture. They seem to think Iran has always been a country of religious fundamentalists, that Iranian women either have no place in our society or that they are hysterical black crows. In fact, Iranian women are not downtrodden  weeds: my mother’s maid has kicked out her husband, and I myself  slapped so many men who behaved inappropriately  in the street. And even during the worst period of the Iranian Revolution, women were carrying weapons”, Marjane declares with conviction.

While no fan of the revolution or the current ruling regime, Marjane stresses that neither was she a supporter of the exiled Shah. “Many people in Europe venerate the Shah. I think he was a bastard. True, we had some luxury Hilton hotels and a few kilometers of highways, but when he left, half the Iranian population was illiterate and living in utter poverty, which was unacceptable in a country with so much oil”…

The Islamic revolution interpreted through the eyes of a 10-year old girl

What gives “Persepolis” credibility is the convincing way specific events are interpreted through the eyes of a 10-year old girl. For example, the young Marjane of the comic strip —  the heroine of these very autobiographical books — explains how she did not know what to think about the veil when it became compulsory after the Revolution. Her cartoon portrays  young girls  in the school court yard sharing the same dilemma.. Her drawings are simple but stylized and effective; they carry a message everybody understands and usually evoke a smile of pleasure. This is what gives her work its unique flavour, while they can be didactic and political, still, both the text and the drawings provide the reader with a wry pleasure.

A drawing from Persepolis

How can Marjane Satrapi re-create with accuracy and  authenticity the feelings and behaviour of the little girl she long ago ceased to be?  “Don’t forget I left my parents when I was 14: I was in a foreign country, alone. I spent a lot of time thinking about what my parents used to tell me; I supposed I am immersed in my past”. Marjane Satrapi could never be considered “politically correct”,  which is probably what makes her work so convincing: she is not another exile denigrating the Islamic Revolution and glorifying the Shah’s regime.

In the first volume of “Persepolis” she tells the story of her family and how they lived through the revolution which ousted the Shah — not sparing her readers the pleasure of a few scathings drawings and gibes about the Shah’s father, Reza khan, an “illiterate petty officer” who wanted to set up a republic and was convinced by his British mentors to found an empire “so his minister would shine his shoes”.

Marjane’s schoolmistress tells her that the emperor was chosen by God, but her father tells the little girl that when he came to power, he confiscated all the belongings of her forefathers,  the Qadjars. Her grandmother tells the small heroine of the comic strip how the family were so poor they had nothing to eat, but how in order that the neighnbors would not guess how bad things were, she would boil water to make them believe she was cookin.

Through her cartoons, the young heroine also introduces us to the champions of her childhood. The young Marjane overheard conversations between her parents about the torture in the Shah’s jails.  Among all the heroes discussed, one fascinated the small girl more than any other: uncle Anouche, who was involved with Great Uncle Fereydoune in establishing the short-lived independent republic of (Iranian, pro-Soviet) Azerbaidjan in 1946.

None of her school friends could boast such heroes in their families. But only a few months after the Islamic revolution, a new wave of repression  swept away all these militant heroes. Some chose exile, others were murdered, while Uncle Anouche, who always believed the situation would improve, was sent back to prison — this time by the islamists — and later executed as a “Russian spy”. The last person to visit Anouche in jail was Marjane, a tragically memorable experience for a 10-year old girl…

The second volume of Persepolisrecords details of Marjane’s life during Iran’s war with Iraq, which coincided with the harshest years of the Islamic Republic. The air raids, the refugees, the Bassijis (volunteers for the front), and the patrols of the pasdars, checking women were wearing the veil and searching  homes for illegal cassettes and alcohol, all provide material for her work. During those troubled years, slowly but surely, the small Marjane becomes a teenager — and a rebel. Her parents decide it will be safer to send her to Europe, to Austria, claiming they will follow her after a while. They did not.

Marjane became a lonely exile — which, she says, she will discuss in the third volume of “Persepolis”. The subject of her fourth volume has been earmarked for her return home to Iran.

“How does one manage to live in exile?, she asks rhetorically and answers herself,  “To become integrated, one must forget entirely where one comes from. I had hard times — my parents had no more money to support me. My friends at the French lycée in Vienna were rich kids;  I could not stand their expressions when I told them I was Iranian: Ah… Khomeini, ah … the ayatollahs, the veil…. I could read it in their faces. I even went as far as denying my nationality”, Marjane admits. “For a while I said that I was French but I was young and stupid”, she excuses herself.  Today Marjane Satrapi is proudly Iranian — and she can also be proud for having written and drawn a series of comic strips that reveal more about contemporary  Iran than many academic books.

(The Middle East magazine, April 2.002)