Ancient Empires, Schoolgirl Angst: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis


Continuing my recent exploration into international graphic novels, those of non-American origin or somehow about cross-cultural themes, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up one of my personal favorites and one that has received well deserved critical acclaim: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

A city I’ve visited only in my dreams: an artist’s recreation of the Apadana palace at Persepolis.

The title of this book grabbed me the first time I heard about it, because the ancient Persian city of Persepolis was central to the storyline of my graphic novel about Alexander the Great, The Golden Vine. My story is an alternate history of Alexander’s empire: I changed a couple of key events to get a different outcome, that being Alexander living into old age and conquering the whole world, instead of dying young at 33 and leaving behind one of the biggest “what-ifs” in history.

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Today, Persepolis is a pile of ruins outside modern Shiraz in Iran. Once the most important of the four capitals of the largest empire the world has ever known, supplicants entered the palace through the imposing Gate of All Nations, passing carvings of all the cultures known to the Persians lining up to give tribute to the Great King, the absolute ruler of millions from the banks of the Nile to the edge of India.

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In 1971, the Shah of Iran announced a celebration of 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy (obviously he left a few t’s uncrossed and i’s undotted in making this pronouncement; it was hardly a continuous empire for that length of time), and had a 160-acre tent city built next to the ruins to host an opulent celebration for world leaders. This show of grandeur did not impress all of his people, and strained Iranian society’s increasing discomfort with the dichotomy between the country’s identity as a modern Islamic state and images of its (arguably decadent and excessive) ancient imperial glories. Popular resistance held back the Shah’s ambitious plans to restore Persepolis as a World Heritage site, given the country’s many economic and social problems.

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Outright protests against the Shah’s monarchy began in 1977. Within a year and a half, almost 10% of Iran’s population marched against him on a single evening throughout the country. The Shah finally fled Iran in 1979, leaving the government in the hands of a prime minister, who in turn invited Ayatollah Khomeini back to the country after years in exile. The rest, as they say, is history: Khomeini refused to work with the remnants of the Shah’s badly weakened and leaderless government, and instead appointed his own, forming the beginnings of the Islamic autocracy that continues in Iran to this day.

Persepolis has since sat in crumbling ruins, only the comparatively dry climate of the region protecting it from total decay. It took foreign archeologists to even confirm that the fallen debris on the desert plain near Shiraz was in fact the fabled capital of the ancient kings, founded by the great Cyrus, built upon by Darius and Xerxes, but never actually fully finished. Pillars 60 feet high, worn down to the bare stone (originally, they were covered in panels of precious cedar, gold, and jewels), hint at the sheer scale and majesty of the original structures, the like of which the world will never see again.

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Marjane Satrapi’s book takes its name from this ancient, ruined city to underscore the time of change the author witnessed in Iran, relating it to the fall and decay of the ancient Persian empire. Her story starts in the tempestuous days following the initial popular dissent against the Shah’s rule. Born in 1969, Satrapi was eight when her parents participated in the countrywide demonstrations against the monarchy in Tehran.

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She came of age as the religious autocracy took over and the more European style of education established by the Shah was replaced with Islamic orthodoxy-along with all the hypocrisy of any fundamentalism, especially when it is put in place quickly in a society that became accustomed to freedoms like the consumption of alcohol and coed education. Anything Western was condemned, and morality became regulated by committees with sweeping powers to arrest and detain anyone not deemed sufficiently virtuous (like a woman who might appear to be wearing lipstick). Memorable scenes in the book include Satrapi, as a girl, going through a black market in which Michael Jackson tapes were the most valuable commodity-and her subsequent persecution for consuming Western goods and values by hijab-wearing schoolteachers.

In 1983, Satrapi’s parents managed to get her (but not themselves) out of Iran and to Austria. As Satrapi takes us out of the political and social turmoil of Iran, we enter a no less fraught battlefield within and around her as she struggles to fit into European society. The alien ideas and values she observes (and sometimes partakes of), the subtextual and overt racism she encounters, and her own struggles with her Iranian identity make for absolutely fascinating reading. A sequence I particularly love involves dreamy sequences with an Austrian boy she becomes involved with, followed by her unhappy crash back to reality when he dumps her-a beautiful, golden Romeo one moment, and a pimply, gap-toothed cretin the next. It speaks volumes of Satrapi’s storytelling that she can move the focus from world-changing events, to girlhood dialogues with God about religion and prophecy, to the angst of puberty and teenage years (then, finally, to her ultimate discovery of her identity and an adopted home in Paris) with such facility.

Marjane Satrapi

Equally fascinating is Satrapi’s reckoning of the events taking place in Iran, including a sequence illustrated using puppets, telling the story of how Western interference and economic manipulation resulted in the Shah being crowned as ruler very much in the pocket of the colonial West. Using characters like Satrapi’s grandmother (my favorite character in the book), she provides both factual retellings and the crushing emotional impact of the times she grew up in.

This is a story that could really only have been told in this medium. As skillfully as Satrapi may have made prose work to describe these events, illustrations communicate everything that the words can’t, especially when it comes to the story’s many moments of childlike wonder. Persepolis, as a story, is so good that it was made into a film, and in doing so has brought yet another exceptional graphic novel into mainstream recognition. The collected Persepolis you can find compiles two volumes, the first being the story of Satrapi’s childhood in Iran, and the second focusing on her return to the country from Europe (and her eventual second departure).

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If you buy only five graphic novels this year, this should absolutely be one of them. (I’ll figure out what the other ones should be and write a column about that, on the proviso that you make the sixth one of mine.)