“Persepolis” 19 years on: still relevant?

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Persepolis is a very interesting book. Originally written in French, it essentially constitutes an autobiography of its author, Marjane Satrapi, a French-Iranian national.

What I found particularly insightful about Persepolisis was its comic book format. The book is obviously targeted at adults as it discusses serious themes such as oppression under the Iranian theocratic regime. However, the comic book format reaches out to the inner-child and innocence of its readers, as well as a stripped-down, candid perspective of what is, well, a black and white situation.

9 years later, the “revolutionary” theocracy still stands.


The hypocrisy of revolution

The comic book format almost certainly reflects Marjane’s childhood perspective of the Iranian Revolution. Perhaps she saw the whole fiasco for what it was – a dramatic episode full of twists and turns worthy of a sitcom. The book was itself adapted to an animated movie released at Cannes in 2007.

An innocent, little girl, Marjane’s Marxist parents encouraged her to support the overthrow of the unelected Iranian Shah in 1979, who represented a 2,500 year old dynasty. It is understandable why her family would want to be masters of their own destinies… only to be let down by another unelected regime. Marjane’s parents were also unwittingly coherent. They practiced the same liberalism towards their daughter in their own politicised microcosm that they expected of their national ruler.

Nonetheless, the 1979 “revolution” became hijacked by the theocratic and deeply hypocritical “Revolutionary Guards Corps”. The guards maintained the image of an organised group of volunteers backing Ayatollah Khomeini, but it is clear that anybody could claim membership to the loosely defined and highly ambiguous entity. With its ostensibly religious regime in place, the “Islamic Republic” now denies the very mechanisms that helped propel the regime into power – it has a double standard when it comes to revolution and dissident voices.

This is where the book remains highly relevant. Persepolis draws light on certain attitudes that existed in the mid- to late-20th century, particularly between Muslims, atheists, secularists, Arabs, Iraqis and Iranians. It also contrasts the quality of Marjane’s life fleeing to Vienna against the dire situation in Tehran. But it goes further. Persepolis powerfully illustrates how those in favour of revolution later become opposed to revolution. We see this dynamic all over the Arab and Islamic World, past and present:

  • Muammar Gaddafi‘s revolutionary party opposed revolution once in power
  • Saddam Hussein‘s revolutionary party opposed revolution once in power
  • The Assads’ revolutionary party opposed revolution once in power
  • Abdelaziz Bouteflika‘s revolutionary party continues to oppose revolution

All of these events are historically linked, and they are equally connected through deeply ingrained hypocrisy. It seems as if revolution is only acceptable if it suits the agenda of the interested power, otherwise revolution becomes a sign and act of national treason that can be punishable by death.

This is a form of supreme arrogance that suggests these leaders have some form of divinely ordained insight and intelligence that not a single other person in their respective countries holds. This insight makes these regimes each individually qualified for revolution in a manner that other regimes are not. Persepolis powerfully unveils this double standard in a way that is accessible, dynamic and memorable.

The book is a popular insight into Iran’s revolution of 1979, but needs to be read alongside literature of a more academic nature if you are using the text to inform your research on the Middle East from a more neutral perspective. Many of its sentiments are portrayed through lenses of affection and nostalgia which convey truths and insights of their own, but these sentiments should be complimented by historical robustness if you are looking to develop nuanced conclusions on the Iranian theocracy.

I highly recommend Persepolis as a casually introductory read to Iraqi, Iranian and Islamic governance.

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