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What she drew at the revolution

Graphic-novel memoir shows light, dark sides of life in post-'79 Iran.

June 04, 2003|Lewis Beale | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Marjane Satrapi was a typical young teen. She liked tennis shoes, hamburger joints and cheesy rock bands like Iron Maiden. But in post-revolutionary Iran, these aspects of Western culture were not only frowned upon, most were banned outright. One day in 1983, when 13-year-old Satrapi was walking through Tehran wearing Nikes and a denim jacket with a Michael Jackson button on it, she was stopped by two women from the Guardians of the Revolution, the feared defenders of Islamic morality in Ayatollah Khomeini's puritanical regime.

"Their job was to put us back on the straight and narrow by explaining the duties of Muslim women," writes Satrapi in her moving, graphic-novel-style memoir, "Persepolis" (Pantheon), which recounts her life as the daughter of educated, upper-middle-class parents before and after the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Satrapi was lucky that time -- and quick-witted. She made up a story about an evil stepmother who would beat her if the Guardians disciplined her, and blubbered so much the women let her go. So instead of a possible visit to Guardian headquarters, where Satrapi could have been held in secret and possibly tortured, she went home and recovered from the experience by playing Kim Wilde's junk pop tune "Kids in America" on her tape deck.

Incidents like these, fraught with peril, humor and irony, abound in "Persepolis," which the 33-year-old Satrapi, now based in Paris, admits is a way for her to explain Iran to a foreign audience.

"Since I came to France in 1994, I never stopped saying how my country was in reality," says Satrapi, "that all the images they show -- how fanatical and crazy we are, all of that -- it doesn't correspond to the reality. I just kept saying, 'It's not like that, it's like this,' and, one day, when I was visiting a studio where all these graphic novelists were working, they told me, 'Why don't you do it? Make a graphic novel.' "

This was entirely new territory for Satrapi, whose great-grandfather was the last Persian emperor. Although she had already written several children's books and came from a culture that highly valued the juxtaposition of text and pictures (Satrapi proclaims the first illustrated book was Persian), the concept of a graphic novel was entirely new to her.

But then Satrapi saw Art Spiegelman's Holocaust-themed "Maus" and realized "that the graphic novel had such big possibilities. Things you don't want to describe, you can draw. When you have the image, there is no doubt anymore."

A cultured and chic woman who smokes filtered cigarettes and speaks in fluent but occasionally fractured English, Satrapi had a lot to describe.

When the revolution came, her father was a well-to-do engineer and her mother an activist who demonstrated against the shah. Members of an educated elite who thought the shah's overthrow would bring about a Westernized democracy, they were blindsided by the Islamic takeover of the revolution.

"I don't say my experiences represent the whole country," Satrapi notes, "because at the time when everything happened a large part of my country were illiterate, they were peasants. I don't represent these people, but the middle-class Iranian class I came from, I think I represent them a lot. All these people who thought a revolution would lead to a democracy."

"Persepolis" is filled with tales emanating from this class. Satrapi's family moved in a world of political activists, some of them Communists, almost all of whom were forced to flee the country or were tortured and murdered by the Islamic secret services. The book is also a primer on how the Westernized elements of Iranian society dealt with new restrictions for women, the politicization of the school system, and other aspects of the Islamic regime. The New York Times has called it "one of the most delectable examples of a booming postmodern genre: autobiography by comic book."

And with its stark, highly stylized black-and-white drawings, it is also a frightening look at what life was like in the early 1980s, when the war with Iraq brought about a period of extreme repression at home.

"Between 1980 and 1983, when the war started, were the worst years," says Satrapi, "when the Islamists started exterminating all the Iranian opposition. That was such a time of terror."

Not everything was terrible. The regime allowed safety valves like Satrapi's beloved Kansas, a hot dog and hamburger restaurant in Tehran patronized by the upper classes. Satrapi also recounts how it was possible to defy the ayatollahs in little ways, such as the time her parents smuggled in rock posters of her favorite acts after a trip to Istanbul, or the flourishing black market that sold forbidden items like pantyhose and Abba tapes.

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