Bibliography, Book Reviews

Closing the gap between east and west in “Persepolis”

Cover of Persepolis 1, 2000. L'Association Fre...
Cover of Persepolis 1, 2000. L’Association French edition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In her graphic novel, Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi examines the pedagogical issue of “othering” and creates closeness between her western audience and its perceived enemy – the Iranian people – by speaking directly to and carefully instructing the reader on Iran and its people. She explicitly teaches the reader about the Iranian revolution and how she and Iranians like her are very much like us here in the West.

The history of Iran that Satrapi provides in the introduction creates a frame for her story in which the reader must consider the fact that the fundamentalists who now rule Iran were created by the west. She also strives to strip away the “otherness” and show us that we are, in many ways, more alike than we are different. Satrapi uses her text to show her western audience that she and other educated Iranians like her are more like everyday westerners than they are like the fundamentalist Iranians who are so vilified by the west.

Throughout Persepolis, the character of Marji often speaks directly to the western reader. There is no question that Satrapi uses her text to teach to a western audience. For example, in the scene on pages 114-115, Marji walks purposefully down a flight of stairs toward her audience. She may as well be an actor on a stage, pausing the show to step down to audience-level and explain her country’s descent into war. Such a move would not be necessary if she were writing for an Iranian audience.

In other cases, Satrapi creates an aside – usually a sentence or two outside the main frame – in which she explains a concept that she knows her western audience will likely not understand. One example of this occurs on page 254 where she explains that “The term “mujahideen” isn’t specific to Afghanistan. It means a combatant.” She knows the western audience would have mostly heard this term used in reference to Afghanistan and feels the need to explain how it applies within the context of an Iranian story. These and other examples point to the author having a specific western audience in mind.

This text is not only instructional, but it also purposely manipulates the western view of Iran and Iranians. Satrapi begins her story with a history of Iran with which most westerners will be unfamiliar. In her very first comic, she discusses the veil and how it was forced on Iranian women. She uses the veil to illustrate how her society was once much like our own.

The veil is a symbol of oppression, but it is also a symbol of a loss of the individuality – a concept that a western audience will greatly appreciate – that she enjoyed prior to the revolution. She shows us this with the class picture she presents on page three. In the accompanying text, Satrapi says, “And this is a class photo. I’m sitting on the far left so you don’t see me.” She seems to say that it doesn’t matter that you cannot see her, as the veil erases her individuality. The veil is what makes westerners view all Iranians as a mass of enemies of the west rather than as individuals who are capable of disagreeing with the regime under which they are forced to live. Satrapi appeals to western sensibilities by making the statement that the veil is not who she is on an individual level.

This text may also serve as a warning to the west by illustrating the similarities between western fundamentalists and Iranian fundamentalists. One example of this occurs in the chapter titled “The Sheep” (62-71). When one of Marji’s friends tells her, “My parents say it’s impossible to live under an Islamic regime, it’s better to leave,” her response is typical of many intellectuals who believe that intelligent thinking will prevail. She says, “But the religious leaders are very stupid, they won’t last” (63).

An educated western reader might recognize the same sentiment among her own peers. She might also be struck by the parallel in the very next chapter when faced with the Iranian Minister of Education stating on Marji’s television that “Everything needs to be revised to ensure that our children are not led astray from the true path…” (73). Similar efforts have been made to revise history in the United States in order to protect the true path of “patriotism.”

Passages such as these may be used to teach students that events like the Iranian revolution and the resulting oppression can happen anywhere, even in the west. In many ways, Persepolis not only teaches students to focus on their similarities with others, but it may also be used as a warning to the western reader. Fundamentalism and ignorance are bad everywhere and will always lead to oppression when ignored or downplayed by the educated.

Discussion

Well, this is it, folks! This was my last course autobiography for “Studies in Women’s Writing,” and I don’t have any more “Annotated Bib” posts scheduled for you at the moment. I still have my final 20-25 page paper to write, and then the semester is over! My school reading is complete (for now), and I am off to read something on my own personal to-read list over on GoodReads. Feel free to drop a note about this blog post in the comments below or tell me what you’re reading next. Have a great end of semester!

If you enjoy my scholarly writing, you might also enjoy my new book, Papers: A Master Collection on the Art of Writing. Buy your copy on Kindle today for just 99 cents!

Works Cited

Satrapi, Marjane, and Marjane Satrapi. The Complete Persepolis. New York: Pantheon, 2007. Print.

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