review of Marjane Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis

three panels from Persepolis in which Marjane had been running after a bus, but soldiers stopped her because the 'movements' of her 'behind' were 'obscene', and she yells 'Well then don't look at my ass!'

Marjane was a child when the Iranian Revolution happened, but she was old enough to know she was living through something momentous, and to feel the pain of so rapidly losing so many freedoms.

I don’t know a lot about the Iranian Revolution but it’s interesting to me that it seemed to initially draw support from both theocrats and relatively secular leftists, which seems like a surprising combination. Marjane’s father says:

It’s incredible. The Revolution is a leftist revolution and the republic wants to be called Islamic.

Her uncle, Anoosh, is unconcerned:

It’s not important. Everything will turn out fine. In a country where half the population is illiterate you cannot unite the people around Marx. The only thing that can really unite them is nationalism or a religious ethic… But the religious leaders don’t know how to govern. They will return to their mosques. The proletariat shall rule! It’s inevitable!!!

Things do not turn out fine. Yet Anoosh’s faith in Marxism is so strong that even as he is in prison waiting to be executed by the Islamic regime, he reassures Marjane that “one day the proletariat will rule!”

Marjane is a bit of a troublemaker does not sit quietly when her schoolteachers pushed propaganda and obvious lies. For her safety and happiness, her parents send her to Vienna in high school. Surprisingly to me, she decides to return to Iran four years later. In Vienna she faced racism and the loneliness of having no support network. Back in Iran, when her boyfriend complains about their country’s problems, she replies, “Maybe so, but in the West you can collapse in the street and no one will give you a hand.” Nevertheless, a few years later, she does leave Iran again.

One thing that stands out is the regime’s obsession with martyrs.

At school, they lined us up twice a day to mourn the war dead. They put on funeral marches, and we had to beat our breasts.

Boys from poor neighborhoods were given plastic keys, representing access to paradise, and sent to die in the war. After returning from Vienna, Marjane saw:

…sixty-five-foot-high murals presenting martyrs, adorned with slogans honoring them, slogans like “the martyr is the heart of history” or “I hope to be a martyr myself” or “a martyr lives forever.”

Her father says that “the state names streets after martyrs to flatter the families of the victims. In this way, perhaps, they’ll find some meaning in all this absurdity.”

The desire to find some redeeming aspect in the deaths of our loved ones - to assure ourselves that their deaths were necessary for some greater good, or that they will be compensated in the afterlife for their sacrifices - is an impulse rooted in the best part of ourselves: our love and devotion to one another. But it’s also a really dangerous impulse. If we cannot admit when lives have been wasted on a project that was not worthwhile, we will keep throwing away more lives, like a person trying to spend his way out of debt. I’m reminded of a quote from WW1 survivor Vera Brittain: “…if the living are to be of any use in this world, they must always break faith with the dead.”

One of the most horrifying things in the book relates to the execution of an 18-year-old virgin who was a communist. Marjane’s mother explains:

You know that it’s against the law to kill a virgin… so a Guardian of the Revolution marries her… and takes her virginity before executing her.

Thus laws presumably meant to show respect have been used to rationalize state-sanctioned rape. The tradition of paying a dowry is also dragged into this corruption: Marjane’s father explains that the murderers sent a $5 dowry to the girl’s parents “to make sure her awful fate was understood”.

There was more mundane corruption too, of course. Unmarried couples suspected of being, well, couples (“It must be said that during this period”, Marjane says, “young couples who showed themselves in public were running a risk”) could be arrested… and then whipped. But for enough money you could buy your way out of the whipping.

When reading about atrocities like the ones this regime committed, I think it’s important to ask yourself: how do I make sure I never become complicit in something like this? Don’t support theocrats would be far too narrow a takeaway. The delusion that our society would be a paradise if we could just purge ourselves of some supposedly problematic subpopulation - whether racial, religious, economic, or ideological - has plagued humanity in so many forms: Nazis genociding Jews, Soviets murdering kulaks, Catholics and Protestants martyring each other, White Americans lynching Black Americans… It feels like it should be easy to avoid doing such awful things. Just, y’know, don’t be evil. But clearly it’s not actually easy at all, or else history wouldn’t be so full of so many ordinary people participating in such crimes. So how do we avoid falling into the same trap in an as-yet-unseen guise?

a panel from Persepolis, with guns being pointed at a smiling family, with the text 'The regime had absolute power... ...and most people, in search of a cloud of happiness, had forgotten their political conscience.