Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

by Marjane Satrapi

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Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood Summary

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood is a graphic memoir by Marjane Satrapi in which Satrapi recounts her experience of growing up in Iran in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

  • In 1979, Iran undergoes an Islamic Revolution and becomes a theocracy.
  • The new government begins targeting former revolutionaries. Marji's uncle, Anoosh, is imprisoned and executed for revolutionary activities.
  • When the Iraq-Iran War starts, Marji's teachers indoctrinate their students, but Marji doesn't support the war.
  • As Marji grows older, she becomes more rebellious. Worried that their daughter will be targeted by the government, Marji's parents send her to a school in Austria.

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Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood is the first of two autobiographical graphic novels by Marjane "Marji" Satrapi. Writing from Paris, Satrapi recalls her childhood in Iran. The story of Marji’s childhood is set against the history of the Shah’s overthrow, the rise of the fundamentalist Islamic theocracy, and the Iran–Iraq War.

Visually, Persepolis is depicted in simple, black-and-white images. Although Satrapi states in her introduction that Iran is today associated with “fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism,” the Iran of Marji’s childhood is not so simple as black and white. Indeed, six-year-old Marji is immersed in a world of complex ideas, both secular and religious. The ambitious and idealistic Marji wants to be a prophet like Zarathustra, except when she wants to be a revolutionary leader like Che Guevara. As her country becomes lost within conflict, Marji is forced to find her self.

When the story opens, Marji is a schoolgirl in 1980, one year after what is now known as the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The daughter of a well-off family espousing Western values, Marji has—until the revolution—attended a secular French school. The political revolution over, the fundamentalists undertake a cultural revolution, and even young Marji finds herself embroiled within its influence. Bilingual schools have been closed, girls no longer go to schools with boys, and, most conspicuously, girls are required to wear veils to school. The veil is a controversial symbol within the new order.

The controversy and discord under the Islamic regime is actually the latest unfolding of an ongoing political struggle already decades old during Satrapi’s childhood. Before the Islamic fundamentalists took control of the state, the revolution was directed at the repression and corruption of the Shah’s government. Friends and members of Marji’s family had been imprisoned under the Shah’s rule, including her maternal grandfather (who, incidentally, was an emperor of Iran overrun by the Shah’s father). Both of Marji’s parents, Ebi and Taji, protested against the Shah’s policies. However, their motivation was not based on familial revenge but rather on their Marxist politics. Imagine their surprise when they discover that the leftist revolution they supported has rallied around Islamic values rather than Marxist ideals.

As the Islamic theocracy solidifies its power, former revolutionaries are killed one by one, several of whom are friends of the Satrapi family. Eventually, even Marji’s favorite uncle, Anoosh, who had been held as a political prisoner under the Shah, is again imprisoned. Anoosh is permitted only one visitor while he is imprisoned, and he calls upon Marji. Sadly, she is the last friendly face he sees, for he is soon executed under the pretense that he is a Soviet spy. As the fundamentalists’ cultural policies gain momentum, the theocracy raids the American embassy, famously holding Americans prisoner. Coincidentally, this prevents many Iranians who would have fled to America from applying for visas. Finally, to prevent students from being led astray from the “true path” of Islam, the universities are closed.

Used to a modern lifestyle—one that includes card playing, dance parties, and heated political debate—the Satrapi family acutely feels the repression of their liberty. Although they take part in demonstrations in defense of their freedoms, they are forced to give ground to fundamentalist policies.

These fundamentalist constraints begin to be accepted by the populace, particularly those that become known as Guardians of the Revolution. After she is harassed for not wearing a headscarf, Taji begins to wear the veil in public. Later, Taji hangs curtains in her windows to prevent neighbors from spying on and reporting her family’s now illicit activities. However, the family remains relatively secure financially, and they...

(This entire section contains 1152 words.)

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decide to travel to Spain for a vacation while they still can.

Unfortunately, the Satrapis return home to news that Iran has been invaded by Iraq, thus marking the start of the Iran-Iraq War. Always the idealist, Marji initially views the conflict as the second Arab invasion in 1,400 years, and she fantasizes about the righteous defense of her homeland. However, as the war continues and the family endures food shortages, bombings, and the deaths of their neighbors, Marji comes to recognize the suffering and brutality of war.

At school, students are taught to support their country. Marji and her friends are required to beat their breasts as they stand witness before funeral marches. In the newspapers, casualties are listed under the headline “martyrs.” However, when she witnesses the grief that her friends feel after their fathers are killed in action, Marji sees through the propaganda of the newspapers, of the state, and of her school teachers.

Marji’s teachers proselytize the values of the Islamic Revolution and of the need for martyrs. Marji’s parents are outraged to hear that school boys are given plastic keys and are taught that martyrs use them to open the gates to paradise. Not surprisingly, Marji starts to consciously struggle to reconcile her parents’ modern values with the Islamic fundamentalism around her. Now a teenager, Marji is eager to grow up; she begins smoking smoking, ditches school to flirt with boys, and listens to smuggled cassettes of Michael Jackson, Kim Wilde, and Iron Maiden. However, after the cultural reforms imposed by the fundamentalists, those activities are publicly disapproved of and can get Marji into trouble. Marji has grown into the sort of young woman who wears denim jackets, Nike shoes, and jewelry. When her principal tries to confiscate her bracelet, Marji hits her and is consequently expelled. Although Taji and Ebi are able to find a new school for her, Marji continues to speak out.

No longer an innocent child, Marji stands up to her religion teacher, and for the first time, her idealism is not uncalled for. When told in class that there are no longer political prisoners under the Islamic Republic, Marji is outraged. Pointing out that her own uncle was executed by the Islamic Republic and that there are 300,000 political prisoners under the new regime, Marji demands that her teacher answer for this hypocrisy.

Marji’s parents are contacted. Although they are proud of their daughter for standing up for her ideals and for the truth, they are afraid that Marji will be persecuted under the new order. Taji points out that virgins cannot be executed, so they are forced to marry Guardians of the Revolution, who will take then take both the virginity and the life of their wives.

Undeniably, Ebi and Taji are proud of their daughter for being able to navigate the religious and political ideals at conflict in Iran. However, although Marji has grown into an independent thinker, her parents cannot overlook the danger in which this places her. Reluctantly, Ebi and Taji choose to send their daughter to a French school in Austria. Her values newly forged, Marji realizes that she must now set out without her parents to help her.