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When Bookfox Kate suggested that we take a week to consider the current refugee crisis, I could not help remembering reading Persepolis and the particular impact it had on me at the time I was reading it. What I said then was sadly, horribly prescient, and so I think it is appropriate to post my review again. At that time (two years ago) in the UK the debate was raging about the correct response to the (then) popular uprising in Syria. The issues were by no means clear-cut; the memory of the deeply flawed intervention in Iraq was still raw, and at the time the non-decision was taken to pursue masterly inaction. Was what was happening in Syria a manifestation of the movement for democracy, or a bloody factional civil war, or something even more sinister and threatening? At that time there was the actuality of death and danger for innocent civilians and potential for far more, unless a path to peace could be found. It has not been found, any hope was unfounded, and the enormity of the malevolence and violence on every side of the conflict has led to the overwhelming number of refugees we struggle with today. This autobiography was written long after the Iranian revolution that caused teenaged Marji to leave her parents and seek safety in Europe. It is an essential mythbuster: of course Marji would rather be at home; of course she wants the same things as anyone else – childhood, youth, happiness, security, an untroubled life. Of course, if her family thought there was a choice she would not have become a refugee. Persepolis should be required reading for those who like me seek to understand what it means for someone – anyone – to leave home and security and a happy prosperous life, to break up a family and to try and survive in another country. Reading it is an exercise in empathy. How can we not try and make it as easy and welcoming as possible?
Persepolis, as I think everyone in the world knew apart from me, is the autobiography of a young Iranian girl, told in graphic form. I don’t think I would have found and read it for myself without the recommendation of a friend. Certainly, the news had not reached my desert island hermitage that it has been made into a highly successful animated film (which I must now make a point of seeing). Marjane Satrapi tells the story of her life as a child (in part 1) and a young adult (in part 2) growing up in Iran, and then in exile, and then returning home. This life spans the fall of the Shah and the establishment of the revolutionary regime that replaced his rule. It is a matter-of-fact, stubborn, brave and often funny account of living in dangerous times and having to grow up too fast.
The graphic format is brilliant from several points of view – it reminded me constantly of the persona of the heroine. Her image was always before me, in virtually every frame, as a little girl, then a growing teenager, then an exiled teenager, then a young adult, returning home. The combination of image and words means that the story is conveyed with pace and immediacy. The emotional punch is shared between image and words, and all the stronger for that. I’ve said I am not sure if I’d have found this autobiography to read for myself, but still less do I think I would have embarked on reading it as a written memoir, and if I had I’m not sure if I’d have finished it. As it is, the graphic format pulled me along with it, though I had to go back from time to time to remind myself of the very complex family relationships described at the beginning when the scene is being set.
Marjane (Marji) is the only child of prosperous, cosmopolitan parents, secure in their lifestyle under the old regime. The first she knows of change is being told, uncomprehending, to wear a veil to go to school. Her parents try to balance survival as a family with taking part in street protest, their former status a distant dream; but others in their family are not so secure, and several of her male relatives are imprisoned, executed or just disappear. The author is outstanding at conveying just how much meaning that had for an intelligent child and what she noticed and failed to notice. As Marji grows into her teens, the repression and war footing with Iraq make life unimaginably dangerous for her family and friends. She has to grow up fast, and the risks she and all around her had to run are seared on my mind. She wants clothes and sneakers and music and posters, just like any teenage girl in the West. She wants to think for herself. Her parents finally can bear it no longer, and to keep her safe, as they think, find a way to send her to Vienna to school. She is 15 years old. How Marji navigates western life and values and the new and different cruelty and risk she encounters there make for equally bleak reading, until, four years older, she finds the lesser of two evils is to return home to Iran.
One theme is bleakness, risk, danger and loss of hope; another is resilience, personal autonomy, survival and strength of mind. Ultimately the latter wins, and that carried me through. Marji is fortunate to survive, and learns to negotiate a fraught world with intelligence and raw cunning. The conditions in which she grew up, at home and in Europe, would daunt anyone, but her character is forged in the crucible of the most volatile and dangerous times. Her life is told through a series of vignettes, any or all of which are completely outside the life experience of a comfortably-raised western girl. Marji is portrayed as the antithesis of the perfect heroine much of the time – she’s a naughty girl, a stroppy teenager, a defiant young adult. Her saving grace is that she loves and is loved by her parents and grandmother, who wish only the best for her, without knowing what that might be as the foundations of their world are knocked out. Marji behaves both badly and bravely, all the time with the knowledge of the haven of her loving family either there to catch her when she falls, or as a distant memory and dream of the ultimate bolt-hole while she is sent away from her home.
It is hard to describe reading Persepolis, except to say that the effect on me was profound. I think that, as described on the cover, it will stay with me for a very long time. Marjane Satrapi has the genius to describe a human condition that we can all relate to, and the terrifying conditions in which it is lived that are totally outside our experience in the West, all at once; while the narrative is shot through with a sense of adventure, of being truly alive and loving life while it is precious and so precarious, and with a biting wit. The vignettes are great short stories, woven together to make a whole life and world. Reading Persepolis right now, at this moment in history, could not be more relevant and instructive. The insight I gained was that from where I sit I could only dimly share what Marji had lived, of been repressed as a woman, of losing her freedom, of being under direct attack from weapons of war, of seeing the lives of family and friends ruined or snuffed out, and bearing it all with stoic courage. So how justified are this country and its allies in contemplating the risk of visiting any such terror and danger on the people of Syria, even for a principle? There has to be a path to justice with peace to pursue first with all humility. I read this unique work, and it personalises what our intervention might mean for people not unlike Marji, but already suffering worse privation and danger than she did. With less bitterness than regret the author describes the contribution of the West to her country’s woes in the 80s and 90s, arming both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, then sitting back while each side weakened the other. Thought-provoking as a description of Persepolis scarcely begins to cover it.
Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis I & II. London: Vintage, 2009 (paperback ed). 352pp
ISBN 13: 9780099523994