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Historical Context of 'Persepolis'

When the text was written

Marjane Satrapi began to write Persepolis after she finished university in France in 1994, with her friends at the time acquainting her with the graphic novel form. It is thus a text composed in an increasingly volatile global environment, one which perhaps paralleled the epoch she was depicting.

Satrapi’s work was created in an era preceded and followed by large amounts of military intervention and social unease in the Middle East. This is often thought to be largely a result of the vast, often untapped, oil reserves found in there. In an increasingly energy insecure world, oil reserves are of great importance, and thus Iran’s vast primary natural resources can cause large levels of unrest and troubles. Iran’s government states that oil reserves in Iran are third largest in the world, with approximately 150 billion barrels available as of 2007 (being ranked second if unconventional oil reserves – such as the Canadian reserves - are excluded). This is roughly 10% of the world's total proven petroleum reserves, and Iran is therefore an energy superpower, also claiming precedence as one of the leading members of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) (OPEC).

As Anup Shah states, ‘given the vast energy resources that form the backbone of western economies, influence and involvement in the Middle East has been of paramount importance for the former and current imperial and super powers, including France, Britain, USA and the former Soviet Union.’ (See link: Middle East: Global Issue). Indeed, this is a fact perhaps exemplified by the number of US military bases around Iran. See Figure 1. The involvement of Western countries in the Middle East was thus increasing at the time Satrapi was writing, and her work, depicting a revolution begun by Western influence on the Shah (See: Persepolis, Satrapi, pages 14-15, 38-39) would have had great resonance with the Iranians of her contemporary world.

US Military Bases around Iran

(Figure 1: US Military Bases around Iran. Image source.)

Moreover, the text was written amongst the trade embargos and sanctions of the years that followed the mid-1990s. 1995, for example, brought oil and trade sanctions imposed on Iran by the US following Iran's alleged sponsorship of terrorism after Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear arms. Initially, both nations were hostile as Iran denied the charges, and by September of 1998 Iran’s deployment of thousands of troops on its border with Afghanistan had only furthered these embargos.

Similarly, Persepolis was written around contemporary social unrest, with protests and demonstrations becoming widespread. July 1999 has been cited as bringing the most violent uprisings since the 1979 revolution which Satrapi depicts, producing six days of student-led protests and rioting, and the arrests of 1,000 Pro-Democracy students.

Satrapi’s work was thus written in a time of political fears and social unease and disintegration, and her work depicting a revolution whose end had not brought about peace is one relevant to her contemporary audience, and the time in which she wrote it.

When the text was set and the historical events of Persepolis

Although Iran historically has had a volatile history, this has not always been the case, and the first human rights charter discovered originated from Iran. This has been named the ‘Cyrus Cylinder’ in modern years, after the Emperor of Persia, Cyrus, in 576-530 BC. See Figure 2. The Cylinder's text has traditionally been seen by Biblical scholars as corroborative evidence of Cyrus’ policy of the repatriation of Jews following their captivity in Babylon. Satrapi seems to consciously ignore this heritage however, and instead her text focuses on the more restless aspects and history of the nation.

Cyrus Cylinder(Figure 2: Cyrus Cylinder. Image from British Museum)

The title of Persepolis itself places the text directly in the turbulent ancient history of Iran. Once the capital of Iran, Persepolis was located in the South-West of the country, only the ruins of which now remain. Diodorus Siculus, a Greek Historian, writing between 60 and 30 BC, detailed its destruction in his famous work, Bibliotheca historica, stating that Persepolis:

“Was the capital of the Persian kingdom. Alexander [the Great] described it to the Macedonians as the most hateful of the cities of Asia, and gave it over to his soldiers to plunder...(3) The king, too, more greedy for wine than able to carry it, cried: "Why do we not, then, avenge Greece and apply torches to the city?...(8) Such was the end of the capital of the entire Orient.” (Diod. Bibliotheca historica. Book 17.70. Verses 3-5)

By naming her text after such a city, Satrapi is placing her text in the context of a continually feuding nation, setting the scene for the novel as one which is well versed in the art of war. Its positioning as such therefore has resonance with an increasingly Capitalist world, where Alexander the Great’s destruction parallels that of modern day imperialism. For a further overview of ancient Iranian history, see the BBC’s timeline (BBC Timeline)

The text is set between the years 1976 and 1994, detailing eighteen years of the author’s life, and encompassing Iranian history from the past two millennia. It is set in the years surrounding 1979 Iranian Revolution, which Marjane Satrapi herself states "was normal, and it had to happen. Unfortunately, it happened in a country where people were very traditional, and other countries only saw the religious fanatics who made their response public." (Marjane Satrapi Interview).

The revolution occurred for a number of reasons. Largely, it was a result of opposition to the Westernizing and secularising attempts of the Western-backed Shah, and this is the main reason documented in Satrapi’s text. Other reasons included a rise in the public’s expectations following an overly ambitious economic policy, which aimed to exploit the income made from oil in 1973, anger over a short, sharp economic downturn in 1977-78, and other shortcomings of the ‘ancien regime’ (the monarchical hierarchy established by the Western nations centuries before).

Iran was the subject of a great deal of controversy throughout the time Satrapi depicts. The Iran–Contra affair, for example, was an American political scandal which came to light in November 1986 during the Reagan administration. Reagan’s government, which played a decisive role in the survival of Iraq’s president, Suddam Hussein, by allowing intelligence and hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to be given to Iraq throughout the 8 year war with Iran, had also been allowing the sale and facilitation of arms to Iran. When this financing of both sides came to light, Reagan stated:

"First, let me say I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration. As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities. As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I'm still the one who must answer to the American people for this behaviour." (Reagan on the Iran Contra Scandal)

Thus, Satrapi’s text is set predominantly in a nation which, particularly in recent years, has centred around scandals and warfare. Though the majority of Satrapi’s text focuses on her personal life, some of the Iranian revolution is explicitly depicted.

The main historical events documented are as follow:

Cinema Rex Fire, 19th August 1978, pages 14-15:

- The Cinema Rex in Abadan, Iran, was set ablaze, killing around 470 individuals. The government blamed the Islamic militants, while the anti-Shah protesters blamed the governmental intelligence service. It was later disclosed that it was the Islamic militants.

Black Friday, September 8th 1979, pages 38-39:

- Involved the shooting of protestors in Zhaleh Square in Tehran, Iran. It has been described as a pivotal event in the Iranian revolution, where any hope for reconciliation between the Shah’s regime and the revolutionary movement was lost. According to anti-governmental sources, a predominately peaceful demonstration was broken up by the Iranian military, with opposition and Western journalists reporting that the Iranian army massacred protestors and left between 100 dead.

Closing of Universities, 1979, page 73:

- University and higher education had been common in Iran, dating back to the early centuries of Islam. In the twentieth Century, the system was seen as antiquated, and was remodelled along French lines. However, the country's 16 universities were closed after the 1979 revolution and were only reopened after the Cultural Revolution Committee had investigated and dismissed professors who were Marxist, Liberal, or believed any other "imperialistic" ideologies. The universities reopened gradually with Islamic curricula between 1982 and 1983 under Islamic supervision.

Western Sexual Revolution, 1960-80s, pages 182-191:

- The sexual revolution was a Western social movement challenging tradition concerning sexuality and relationships from the 1960-80s. This liberation began with included increased acceptance of sex outside of marriage, and widely available contraception - most importantly the Pill - the normalization of premarital sexual relations and, the legalisation of abortion, and the acceptance of homosexuality and alternative forms of sexuality.

Iraq bombs Tehran, 1985, pages 256-257:

- In 1985, Iraqi warplanes bombed Tehran and two other Iranian cities on a Sunday, killing at least 28 people in largely residential areas of the Iranian capital. Baghdad deemed the raids ‘retaliation’, for an attempt to assassinate the leader of Kuwait, and Iran said its aircraft hit back.

Iraq attacks Kuwait, 1991, page 322:

- The Invasion of Kuwait, later known as the Iraq-Kuwait War, was one of the larger conflicts between the Ba’athist Iraqi’s and the nation of Kuwait, which resulted in a seven month occupation of Kuwait by Iraq, leading to direct military intervention by Western, American-led forces in the Persian Gulf War, and culminating in the torching of 600 of Kuwait’s oil wells in 1991. (See the 1992 IMAX production film Fires of Kuwait)

Iran’s Plastic Keys to Paradise, 1980, pages 100-102:

- This episode in the text refers to the plastic ‘Keys to Paradise’ allegedly distributed to young Iranian military volunteers during the Iran/ Iraq (1980-1988) by the Islamic Republic of Iran leadership, who stated that they symbolised certain entry into Paradise upon death. They were deemed absurd by even some contemporary.

When the text is being read

Published in English in 2008 and at the turn of the millennium in French, Persepolis is a modern text, written amongst continued strife and fraught relations between Iran and the West. With initial military intervention in the Middle East beginning in 2003 with Iraq, Persepolis is consonant with continued warfare and struggle. Following the US sanctions introduced in October 2007, the toughest since those first imposed almost 30 years before, and the nuclear threat posed by Iran, relations between the West and the US were at a low point. The text is thus being read by an audience aware of the constant issues in the Middle East, and although written about past events, can be seen as integral in shedding light on current and future events. Indeed, with the continued political and cultural dominance of the West - particularly the US - Satrapi’s text is a worryingly individual account of the impacts of such dominance, a fact which only heightens the reality of current events in the Middle East. It is a starkly genuine and modern portrayal of a nation at war.

Ciara Faughnan-Moncrieff