Persepolis, named after the ceremonial capital of the Persians in their golden era, is a history of Persia from its first occupation, to the establishment of the Empire of Persia--a time Marjari and others long for--then modern-day Iran, and the 1979 Islamic Revolution (which led to the Gulf War); it is also the personal history of a distinguished family and the fervent young girl who evolves into a woman of strong passions.
Marjari Satropi's story revolves around the history of Iran in the last thirty years because as a ten-year old, her world changes in 1980 when first she is told she must wear a veil to school and can no longer be educated with the boys. Her father informs Marjari that the Raz Shah had merely been a foot soldier in the early 1930s who fought against the King of Persia so that a republic could be established. But, he aligned himself with the British, who were interested in the country's oil, and therefore, assisted him in the revolution which established the Shah as ruler and ally of England and America. Unfortunately for her uncle, who had been a prince and a prime minister, the Shah has him imprisoned and tortured because he has become a communist. Also, when the son of the Shah comes to power, he was even more restrictive; rescinding freedom of the press, strengthening the secret police, and centering power into his own hands.
After the second Shah is dispossessed and the Ayatolla Khomeini overtakes power because the U.S. withdrew support from the Shah in 1979, an Islamic state is created. Within this theocracy, Marjari's personal history begins. For among the many citizens who protest is Marjari's mother, who is against the newly-formed government because her views are Marxist rather than Islamic. On Black Friday, her father records the demonstrations on film and causes the family anxiety one day when he does not return home until very late. As all this transpires, Marjari herself begins to rebel against the restrictions of her society. For instance, she hates wearing the veil and being gender segregated; further, she aids the family maid's relationship with a young man out of her social class, an act that defies her father's wishes.
The change in government affects Marjari's family as her uncle Anoosh becomes a political prisoner. At first Marjari romanticizes the uncle's state, but when he is executed, she becomes aware of the reality of political conflict. So disillusioned is she, that this girl who has wanted to become a prophet tells God to "get out of my life" (Ch. 9), and, despite a family trip to Spain, Marjari is exposed to the horrors of revolution as a friend's father, who was a pilot, is killed. Then, one day when she is out with her mother, Marjari and she are spat upon and called southern "whores." Certainly, she is not used to such humiliation.
One day the American embassy is overtaken by the new Islamic regime, crushing Marjari's dream of traveling to the United States. The days darken as boys are recruited into the army to fight for the revolution, and at school, there is mourning for those who are killed in the fighting. Emotionally affected by this war, Marjari finds herself engaged in some rebellious behavior, such as smoking. Then, one evening as the family goes to attend a party for a cousin, they are stopped by the Guardians of the Revolution. While the father talks with the police, Marjari and her grandmother hurry upstairs to dump all the wine since the government forbids its drinking.
When another of her uncles has a heart attack, her father tries to get him out of the country so that he can have heart surgery, but the man who was to make the passport is killed. Uncle Taher dies on the very day his passport arrives, and Marjari finds herself faced again with the tragic events of war. After some time, the borders are opened and Marjari's parents sojourn in Turkey, returning with presents for her as she feels a joy that she has almost forgotten. Three of the presents, a jean jacket, sneakers, and a Michael Jackson button are worn by Marjari when she goes out; two women Guardians of the Revolution accost her, but she is able to return home. However, she discovers that the house next door to her where a Jewish friend Neda lives, has been destroyed; Marjari sees the arm of her friend sticking out from the rubble. This incident precipitates Marjari's becoming a rebel. When her behavior becomes so radical (she strikes the principal) that she must attend another school that her aunt convinces to take Marjari, she again rebels when a teacher tells the class that the Islamic Republic has no political prisoners. Marjari refutes this statement by saying that her uncle was imprisoned by the Shah's regime, but executed by the Islamic regime. Further, she states,
"You say that we don't have political prisoners anymore, but we've gone from 3000 with the Shah to 300,000 under the your regime. How dare you lie like that?"
That evening Marijari's parents receive a phone call; afterwards, her mother worries that Marijari may be executed herself. The next day, her parents inform Marijari that she must go to a school in Austria. So, in Part II, Marijari finds herself in the boarding school, but she is expelled as she rebels against the harsh criticism of the nuns. She then moves in with a girl named Juliet, meets people of different sexual persuasions in a communal apartment, begins taking drugs, and feigns being French. Finally, one day when she overhears talk about her, she proclaims her nationality with pride.
At last, her mother comes to visit her, and Marjari is elated to see her. However, after her mother leaves and she is again on her own, Marjari descends into using hash and selling drugs. Nevertheless, despite her unconventional lifestyle, Marjari does score well on her final exams. Shortly thereafter, she returns to Iran. After she learns all that has occurred, Marjari reflects,
"My Viennese misadventures seemed like little anecdotes of no importance" (Ch. 29),
so she does not talk of her recent past. She visits a friend, who has lost his arm and leg in the war; she visits other people, but can no longer relate to them. Consequently, Marijari ties to commit suicide while her parents are out of town, but she survives and has an epiphany: self-improvement is more valuable than self-destruction. After her resolve to become an aerobics instructor, Marjari meets a boy she knows she will marry. On one date, Marjari wears make-up. When the Guardians appear, Marjari deflects attention on herself by claiming that a man has made advances; he is quickly arrested. After Marjari tells her grandmother, the matriarch scolds her for getting an innocent in trouble while she and her grandfather worked to protect the guiltless. Marjari feels ashamed, but, fortunately, her grandmother forgives her later on.
Marjari begins art school, and it is not long before she speaks out about the double-standards for men and women: the men can wear what they wish, but women must be covered. Rather than receiving punishment, Marjari is ordered to design the uniform for the females; consequently, she designs one with a shorter scarf than usual and flaired pants. Not long after her assignment, the rebellious Marjari behaves rather irresponsibly, holding private arts sessions and partying. When a party is raided one night, one of the youths tries escaping by jumping from one roof-top to another and crashes to his death. This incident leads only to Marjari's accelerating her wild lifestyle until she and Raza get married. Before this marriage, however, her father coerces Raza to agree that Marjari can divorce him if she chooses to do so.
Now, Iraq turns its forces against Kuwait and Iran finds some peace. At the art school, Marjari and Raza are assigned the design of a theme park. They name this project "Disneyland in Tehran," with Iranian mythology as the theme. While the couple is compatible during the project, Marjari decides that she desires both a marital divorce and a divorce from her country. She returns to Europe where she can feel free; so, after visiting Anoosh's tomb, she goes to the aiport where her grandmother and mother and father see her off. Only once more does Marjari see her grandmother before her death, a fact that causes her to reflect, "Freedom had a price." In many ways, then, the struggle for independence in Marjari parallels that of her country.