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The relevance of Marjane Satrapi's ‘Persepolis’ today

Every page of Marjane Satrapi’s iconic graphic memoir of growing up in Iran, written 20 years ago, still wrenches a reaction

There’s war that’s fought with bombs and guns; and then there’s war waged over the minds and hearts of the young.
There’s war that’s fought with bombs and guns; and then there’s war waged over the minds and hearts of the young. (iStockphoto)

Three thousand, three hundred and twenty-four, and counting. That’s the number of children who have been killed so far in the war in Gaza since 7 October.

No life deserves to be reduced to cold statistics. But nonetheless, here’s a devastating data point for perspective. According to the NGO Save The Children, the death toll for children in Gaza and the West Bank already exceeds the total number of annual deaths for minors living in war zones across the world over the last three years. And the current spate of violence in West Asia, from all indications, is far from over.

Be it Homer’s Iliad, the Mahabharat, or Herodotus’ Histories, epics and histories have mourned the hapless casualties of war with pathos and elegy since millennia, even as some of these texts have extolled heroism. The business of fighting wars has remained, in a time-honoured tradition, a plaything in the hands of a few men drunk on power, as ordinary people have become its collateral damage. The English poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed days before the end of World War I at the age of 19, coined the phrase “the pity of war” in his poem Strange Meeting to refer to this universal tragedy of the human condition.

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Adults may seek whatever comfort they can find by philosophising the costs of violence but for children living in conflict zones, war is, first and always, an everyday reality, not the result of political sparring. It is a brute force that destroys their homes, leaves them orphaned, forces them to live in camps, deprives them of food and clean water, disrupts their education and relationship with the world they are born in. Documentary evidence of this truth is spread all over the internet, especially in testimonies by the young victims of the ongoing war in Gaza.

Children living far away from senseless bloodshed find it no less hard to grasp the visceral truth of war, especially if they are sheltered by the privileges of class and upbringing. And yet, in the 21st century, are we not all living in a permanent state of siege, if not in the throes of violence, then being policed by right-wing governments, forced to hold our silence, toe the party line or face the music? There’s a war that’s fought with bombs and gunfire; and then there’s a war that’s being waged over the minds and hearts of the young and old, even in so-called democracies.

In this state of despair, I recently re-read Persepolis, volumes I (2000) and II (2004). This now iconic graphic memoir of growing up in Iran by French-Iranian writer and cartoonist Marjane Satrapi was turned into a movie in 2007, to wide public acclaim. Nearly 20 years later, it remains just as poignant, the simple black and white artwork able to wrench a reaction with almost every turn of the page.

The first part of this two-volume memoir, subtitled The Story Of A Childhood, is a chronicle of Satrapi’s early years. Growing up in Tehran, she witnesses her people thrown around like yo-yos between the communists and the Islamic fundamentalists. Each time there is a change of guard, new horrors emerge, culminating in the Gulf War (1990-91), which finally forces Satrapi’s parents to send her into exile in Austria. Her adolescence years spent abroad become the subject of volume II of the memoir.

In 1979, when she is all of 10, Satrapi watches the Islamic Revolution change the fabric of Iranian society overnight. She wakes up one morning to find she’s no longer allowed to attend her co-ed French school. The songs of Michael Jackson and Kim Wilde, which she loves to bits, suddenly become haram. Along with every other woman and girl, she is forced to wear the veil in public, abstain from make-up, and, of course, boys.

In the grand scheme of human rights violations, especially in a nation where dissenters were routinely arrested, imprisoned, tortured or executed, such restrictions seem mild in comparison. Satrapi’s neighbours and members of her extended family fall victim to the state’s atrocities. A photograph of her mother protesting at a rally finds itself on the cover of a German magazine, leaving the family on edge for weeks, afraid of retribution.

Satrapi never lets us forget all the humiliations, big and small, she had to suffer as a young girl. Forced to abjure simple amusements that millions of boys and girls around the world could indulge in without a thought, young Satrapi felt resentful, even moody and selfish, from time to time. But it’s hard to blame her. In a society where teenagers were bullied and terrorised by the guardians of morality for wearing sneakers in public, there is no place for flash judgements, or values drawn from the social contract that holds together the free world.

And yet, some things don’t change. Little “Marji” has a phase of wanting to be a prophet so that she can eradicate suffering for all, especially her beloved grandmother’s aches and pains. For days on end, she talks with God, an old man with a flowing white beard, who helps her make sense of the chaos around her—until she cannot.

Even though Marji plays silly games with her friends, their fantasies are tainted by an inescapable aura of vengeance. As she marks a rite of passage by smoking her first cigarette, Marji is conscious of the unnaturalness of her life thus far. Like any other teenager, she may be a rebel at heart, quick to defy convention. But in her case, the slightest infringement of rules can lead to the direst of consequences.

Being forced to live in a dangerously precarious world may, at some point, become a matter of habit. As Tehran is bombed by Iraqi fighter jets, Satrapi and her father rush home, only to find her mother calmly taking a bath, oblivious to the noise around her. Schoolchildren chatter in classrooms, discussing the persecution of the men in their families. Martyrdom becomes a point to boast about, except when the truth hits too close to the bone.

As Marji consoles her friend Paradisse on the loss of her father by calling him “a genuine hero”, the little girl gives her a heart-breaking reply: “I wish he were alive and in jail rather than dead and a hero.” After such knowledge, can there ever be any forgiveness?

Rereadings is a monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.

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