General Suleimani Who?
Is it legal to kill another country’s official when we are not at war?
Does this mean Guatemala can assassinate Mike Pence for the two dozen deaths of Central Americans in ICE custody?
And what’s the deal in Iran? They’ve been chanting “Death to America” for forty years now. I was full of questions last week when the United States and Iran seemed on the brink of war.
Persepolis is a graphic memoir by Marjane Satrapi. It came out in 2003. In bold black and white panels, Satrapi describes her Iranian childhood during the time of the Shah’s ouster, the American Embassy takeover and the rise of the Islamic Republic.
It is told from a child’s point of view, an Iranian child. For example, Marjane wanted to be a prophet when she grew up! Nevertheless, I learned a lot about the culture and history of Persia, now Iran, from this book.
The name of the book, Persepolis, refers to the Persian capital city founded by Cyrus the Great 2500 years ago. Marjane talks about the great traumas of Persian history: the 7th century Arab conquest, the 13th century Mongol invasion and Western petroleum ambitions of the 20th century.
We see the world view of a certain class of Iranians who, like Marjane’s parents, were urban and educated. The book also shows the complex international and internal political forces that have buffeted Iran in the twentieth century, and what that has meant for the people living — and dying — through it.
Marjane was a ten-year-old in Tehran when the Shah abdicated in January 1979 and when protestors stormed the US embassy on November 4th that same year. It was a frost-tinged Sunday morning in St. Louis. I watched the chaotic events at the Embassy unfold on a hospital TV while waiting for my C-section. I delivered a son, Alex. And for the next 444 days, Ted Koppel told me on Nightline exactly how many days old Alex was.
As a high schooler, I remember thinking how elegant they were: the chisel-featured Shah in his gold-braided uniform and his wife, the Empress, wearing a tiara atop swept-up hair. At the time, I had no idea that he had come to power through a CIA-engineered coup in 1953 so that the US and the British could continue their control of Iranian oil. The US also helped train the Shah’s secret police called SAVAK. They jailed, tortured and executed many Iranians, including Marjane’s grandfather and friends.
By the late ‘70s, the Shah was hated by nearly everyone in Iran. Liberal intellectuals, like Marjane’s parents, demonstrated against the Shah. The religious extremists, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, also demonstrated. When the Shah finally abdicated, there was general rejoicing.
By the time of the Embassy takeover, the Islamist faction had gained control of the government. The Ayatollah’s government jailed, even executed, political opponents. The religious police punished those breaking the regime’s social rules, such as drinking alcohol, having parties and listening to music, even in one’s own home. Women and girls had strict dress codes. Many of Marjane’s parents’ friends left the country.
Marjane’s drawings show the difference in her life. When she went to school, or anywhere outside the home, she had to dress completely covered in black. School was no longer coed. Still, Marjane was a teenager and, like my young Alex, loved Michael Jackson.
Then Iraq attacked Iran. Saddam thought the disarray in Iran was a good time to strike. The war was vicious. Boys were sent to fight. They were given a golden plastic key and told that it would unlock paradise for them if they were “martyred.” Hundreds of thousands in each country were killed between 1980 and 1988.
Marjane and her classmates had to beat their chests every morning to honor the martyrs. Even Tehran was bombed. Marjane found her neighborhood girlfriend’s bracelet in the rubble.
In the end, her family sent Marjane abroad to study because her outspokenness kept getting her into trouble. In response to her teacher saying, “Since the Islamic Republic was founded, we no longer have political prisoners,” Marjane raised her hand and said, “My uncle was imprisoned by the Shah’s regime but it was the Islamic regime that ordered his execution.”
Most Americans, including me, have no idea how much Iranians have gone through just in my son’s lifetime, just in the last forty years. Their revolution had been high-jacked by religious extremists. They have suffered war, deprivation, state terrorism, dislocation and family separation.
But they haven’t given up their fight for freedom, education and family life. The people let their views be known in massive protests in the 2009 Green Revolution, the demonstrations against gas price increases at the end of 2019 and the current protests after the downing of the Ukrainian plane.
On Jan 8, 2020, President Trump said, “Iran could be a great country.” Probably he was trying to be encouraging, but he only showed his ignorance of history. Culturally and intellectually, Persia has been the “big dog” of the Middle East for millennia. Iran has been a great country for a long, long time.
Marjane Satrapi currently lives in Paris. She has also written Persepolis 2, which follow Marjane’s life after she left Tehran.
Tell me: Do you have a favorite work in graphic form?