By Abigail Hustler
Persepolis is very firmly located both historically and geographically and hence is imbued with a strong sense of place. Through this idea of place, Persepolis is able to deal with issues of alienation, the immigrant experience and the transformative effect of war and revolution. The space within the novel is very significant but is shown to be transient, altering, not only with the political situations, but also with the experiences and changing perspective of the central character, Marjane.
Where is the text set?
Persepolis presents more than the autobiographical story of Marjane: it is also the story of a country, and in particular Iran’s capital city, Tehran. The novel begins in Tehran at time of revolution, change, social transition and war.
The Lonely Planet Guide describes Tehran thus: “Tehran is indisputably [Iran’s] big, loud, chaotic, dynamic and ugly beating heart. This tightly packed city of about 15 million is where change happens first. Politically and socially, it’s Iran’s cutting edge… However, Tehran is also a city of contrasts that play out on geographic lines. It is modern and traditional, secular and religious, rich and poor – north and south.”
“To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction” (Berman 13) and in this respect, Tehran is a modern city, a constantly changing landscape with its oppositions and contradictions. The novel recognises these contrasts: Marjane, even as a child, is very conscious of the social injustices, for example the fact that her maid is not allowed to eat with them and feeling guilty that her father drives a Cadillac; she also demonstrates the gap between the modern and traditional, Eastern and Western cultures, when she goes to buy tapes on Gandhi Street in her punk jacket. These conflicts are shown to be alienating: one of the first images of the book shows Marjane’s conflicted feelings towards the veil. She is divided between by her religious feeling and her family’s modern liberalism.
Marjane is presented as confused and isolated by the political and social contradictions in Tehran, especially in the complicated aftermath of the revolution: “And so I was lost, without any bearings… What could be worse that that?” (Satrapi 71). The next line gives the answer: “It was the beginning of the war”. The war is a significant factor in changing both the public and the personal space. For a child especially, the home is a place of safety and security of the home, which is changed by the invasive bombing.
The relationship of between the public and private space is also altered throughout the novel by the oppression of the regime. “Our behaviour in public and our behaviour in private were polar opposites” (307): within the private space, she is able to behave more freely. As a teenager, Marjane decorates her room with forbidden symbols of Western popular culture. As an adult, she and her friends are able to draw each other unveiled and have parties. However, there is constant fear of discovery and Marjane also describes how “this disparity made us schizophrenic” (307).
School is another important space within the novel. Like the home, it is a key space for a child but rather than an environment which is stable, nurturing and creatively freeing, it is instead presented as a limiting space. In 1980, “it became obligatory to wear the veil at school” (3), boys and girls were separated and Marjane’s school was no longer bilingual because that was a symbol of “capitalism” and “decadence” (4).
In this class photo, she is off the page, symbolically marginalised and isolated by the system. Indeed, she is expelled from school because of her willingness to challenge both the strict school rules, for example by wearing jewellery, and the regime, questioning what the teacher said about political prisoners (144).
This is reflected later in the book when Marjane attends the art school: the college too is restricting. Rather than the creative freedom one would expect from an art school, it is a repressive and limiting space. The students are forced to draw fully veiled life models and forbidden to look at a man when sketching him, while the uniform, their own veils, restricts their freedom of movement.
Body as Space
The veil is a recurring image throughout the novel. Through it, the regime is able to change the way in which women view their body as a space. No longer free to dress or wear their hair as they like, they are alienated within their own body. Their thoughts are restricted to “Is my veil in place?” and “Will I be whipped?” rather than “Where is my freedom of speech?” Indeed, Meyda Yeğenoğlu argues that the veil is completely alienating to the women because it becomes in essence a male political symbol, “transformed into a medium through which the male subjects of the nation can articulate their desires and fears but, more importantly, can assert national difference.” (Yeğenoğlu, 711-12). However, the body can also become a space of rebellion, a political symbol: wearing makeup for example or different hairstyles under the veil, even “showing your wrist” (Satrapi, 304), becomes a way to rebel.
The novel also reflects upon the immigrant experience. Marjane feels isolated in Europe: the culture in Vienna, the sex, the drugs and the parties, is totally different to the Iran she has left behind. She is also separated by the language gap, her inability to speak German, and by the preconceptions formed by the Austrians towards Iran. This is also reflected by her uncle Massoud’s experience living in Germany: “he’s very depressed. In Iran, he was somebody… In Germany, they think he’s a Turk” (205). In her attempt to be accepted, Marjane distances herself from her Iranian past, even denying her nationality. Because of the four years she spends in Europe, she gains a Western perspective which isolates her from her old friends in Tehran. “They all looked like the heroines of American TV series” (272), but they
consider Marjane to be “a decadent Western woman”. Marjane is presented as trapped between two cultures: “I was a Westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the West” (274), not quite able to belong to either. Hence she felt alienated and isolated within both, saying “I had no identity” (274). The airport in Tehran is an important location, emphasising this feeling of displacement. As a transitional space, an airport is both connected and separated from the country in which it is. It is a place of conflict and opposition, a meeting of different cultures. This is demonstrated in the novel when Marjane’s parents smuggle through the Kim Wilde and Iron Maiden posters.
Her return to Tehran emphasizes her difficulty in finding a sense of belonging. Used to the freedom of Vienna, she struggles to adapt: “From the moment I arrived at Mehrabad Airport…I immediately felt the repressive air of my country”.
The city has become unfamiliar to her. She returns from Austria to an Iran changed physically by war: the city had been very badly bombed, parts destroyed and many of the streets named after martyrs with “sixty-five-foot-high murals presenting martyrs” (252). Marjane says that “It was very unsettling. I felt as though I were walking through a cemetery… surrounded by victims of the war I had fled” (253). She feels distanced also by the fact that she hasn’t endured the war and suffered in the same way as those left in Iran. Indeed, when in Vienna, she avoided any mention of the war on television: “I felt so guilty that whenever there was news about Iran, I changed the channel” (196). One of the reasons that she began her relationship with Reza was that “I sought in him a war which I had escaped” (281).
Her marriage to Reza leaves her feeling trapped. The images of their shared home emphasise this claustrophobia, creating an oppressive sense of space.
Where was the text written?
The novel ends with Marjane still in Tehran, about to leave again for Europe. Although the reader doesn’t follow her to France, the fact that this is where the novel is written shows the increased creative freedom and contrasts strongly with the oppressive regime in Iran.
Where is it read?
The novel was written in French, and translated into English, which seems to suggest this is a book to be read in the Western World. Satrapi states in the introduction that she wishes to change the image of Iran within Western culture: “…this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism …I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists”. However, the novel is more complex than that: the fact that it is read by students and academics within the scholastic space demonstrates that Persepolis has something powerful to say about modernity. The novel is set in a modern city full of conflict and contradiction and thus demonstrates clearly the feelings of alienation, isolation and displacement inherent within the landscape of modernity.
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. 2004. London: Random House, 2006. Print.
Berman, Marshall. All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. Penguin: London. 1988. Print.
Yeğenoğlu, Meyda. ‘The battle of the veil: women between orientalism and nationalism.’ Eds. David Lodge and Nigel Wood. Edinburgh: Pearson Education Limited, 2008. Print.
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis.