Isolation and Western Perception in Satrapi’s “Persepolis”

Oppression and misplaced representations of Iranians as foreign ‘Others’ led Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian in exile, to publish Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood; a graphic novel released in Western countries to communicate the unknown virtues of Iranian culture. These virtues unknown by Westerners, Americans specifically for this essay, include the perception of Iranians as being hostile and fanatic fundamentalists, which is only being spread instead of diminished because of faulty stereotypes.

September 11th and the subsequent war on terror placed Iran on the shortlist of ‘Axis of Evil’ powers, suspected of building nuclear weapons. The image of Iranians as ‘evil’ and the icon of their women hidden under black veils became a notable interest for Americans and their instant knowledge base through the sprouting online world in the early 2000’s. One piece of valuable knowledge that eluded Americans was that of an actual Iranian’s perspective inside Iran during their Islamic Revolution and Iraqi War.

Satrapi, through the experience of living in France, noticed this failure of perspective/representation and decided to describe her experiences in the form of a comic book. Her narrative sold millions of copies and reached the upper echelons of the graphic novel world, like Maus, published in 1991 by Art Spiegelman. The story sold exceedingly well because of Westerners heightened interest in Iranian culture and through the unique agency Satrapi explored with her main character Marji—her goal being to dissipate the oppressed figure she was seeing while living in exile in a Western country.

She creates a character that both Westerners and Easterners can identify with, therefore deconstructing the boundaries and stereotypes separating the East from the West.

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Edward Said wrote Orientalism in 1978 in which he notes the same struggles as Satrapi by living in a Western country as a native to the Near East. In the introduction, Said claims disunity between his view and the American’s:

My own experiences of these matters are in part what made me write this book. The life of an Arab Palestinian in the West, particularly in America, is disheartening. There exists here an almost unanimous consensus that politically he does not exist, and when it is allowed that he does, it is either as a nuisance or as an Oriental. The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed, and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny. (27)

Said is disheartened by how the West views the Near East because of the ‘web of racism’ that nobody has bothered to unpack. The fact that Satrapi wrote Persepolis because of her experience of living in an ignorant society shows that neither Said nor Satrapi encountered an anomaly. Clearly there is a wrongful marginalization about the perception of their respective countries and Muslim cultures; they try to fight, and more or less overcome this ‘punishing destiny’ from the literature they successfully released; thereafter providing a closer identification for Westerners. Said later remarks that “no person academically involved with the Near East—no Orientalist, that is—has ever in the United States culturally and politically identified himself wholeheartedly with the Arabs” (27).

This essential quality of identification is important for the power of cultural recognition; without identification, the perception of the ‘Other’ will be based off stereotypes created by the dominant culture. This misperception creates a confusing binary, and dangerous stereotypes will only continue to grow. If Orientalism is Said’s response to the political cry for identification of Palestine, and the Near East in general, then Persepolis is Satrapi’s response to the cultural roar for identification with Iranian women.

Where Said and Satrapi differ is in their approach to form. Persepolis describes Satrapi’s time from ages nine to fifteen (1978-1984) in which she was living in conflict-stricken Iran. The novel ends on a sad note with Marji moving to Vienna alone because her parents feared for her future in Iran; Marji looks on in terror as her father carries her weakened mother at the airport (Satrapi 153). The sequel, Persepolis 2: the Story of a Return, focuses on teenage Marji as she ventures around Europe, returns to Tehran in 1989, and experiences love. This novel ends in 1994 just before Satrapi leaves to live in exile in France. After receiving her master’s degree in visual communication from Islamic Azad University in Iran, Satrapi publishes Persepolis six years into her exile (Schroeder 136).

The graphic novel form allows Satrapi to communicate her ideas visually to the audience she wants most to appeal towards: Westerners. For example, Manuela Costantino points out that “Satrapi’s depiction of Muslim leaders as uneducated, primitive, and narrow-minded brutes strengthens her connection with her Western readers whose perception of Muslim extremists might indeed be quite similar to the one crafted in the autobiography” (432). Satrapi fully understands Western audience’s image of her home and people, and includes this rendition in response to the visual narrative she engages. By telling the story through the eyes and thoughts of a young girl in the middle of Iran’s cultural and political crises, it allegorizes the way her Western audience (for the most part) understands the situation in Iran: as naïve children.

Another clue that sheds light on the appeal of Persepolis to a Western audience, America specifically, is the cover of the graphic novel for the English print release, which Costantino also points out in her essay. The original French language editions released in 2000 in four volumes features revolutionary type warriors riding horses for the first two covers, and the last two display Marji riding a horse. Costantino explains these covers appeal to the French because of their “subconscious” feeling of pride of freedom fighters battling evil forces that try to invade their country (433). Released in 2003 to America, Persepolis centers a veiled Marji in black and white (the same drawing that appears in the first frame) enclosed in a diamond-shaped border surrounded by arrows pointing towards Marji. Costantino argues that ‘the ‘open window’ revealing the child beckons the reader inside the book. In this way, opening the memoir and/or removing the dust jacket functions as a form of metaphorical unveiling” (436).

persepolis

Americans, through the rise of reality television and wide Internet usage, adopted a culture of trying to understand the unknown. This cover allows Americans to “metaphorically unveil” the oppressed and subdued appearance of the Iranian woman in the wake of former President Bush’s State of the Union Address in 2002, where he placed Iran on the list of Axis of Evil countries along with Iraq and North Korea. This chance of viewing an oppressed figure inside an ‘evil’ country appeals to the interest of the American that wishes to experience and support the underdog character. America came from a long history of rooting for the underdog, starting with the War for Independence; Persepolis becomes part of that tradition by forming an identity of a nation out of the oppression of another.

Satrapi, although appealing to her Western audience, still includes icons and experiences specific to Iranian culture. In Nima Naghibi and Andrew O’Malley’s essay, they talk about the front cover in terms of the tulip drawn below the window of Marji. They suggest that “tulips, which have a universal association with springtime, are popular flowers in Iran where they grow in abundance” (Naghibi and O’Malley 230). To the Western audience, tulips have no immediate significance beyond their natural beauty. For Iranians and the history of Persian culture, Tulips are essential to their history; Persian poets as far back as Omar Khayyam in the 12th century have “celebrated the beauty of tulips” (Christenhusz 282). Naghibi and O’Malley’s argument focuses on the use of that symbol from this history; they argue “[the tulip’s] universal signifier of new life, however, shifts in the context of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war when tulips became potent symbols of martyrdom” (Naghibi and O’Malley 230).

This makes sense that the tulip appears upside-down on the front cover: at once, it is an Iranian symbol of beauty and unified culture, but Satrapi grew up in a counter-culture that celebrated the West as a symbol of hope and escape, effectively damaging and subverting her connection to Iranian culture. She includes subtle clues, like the upside-down tulip, to symbolize the partition with her own identity between the binaries of the East and West. The use of the tulip breaks down the binary by having a dual identification between Iranian’s historic culture and recent counter culture that embraces Western culture; showing the reader that the two cultures have matching qualities—also evident in young Marji’s embracement in Western idols such as Kim Wilde and Iron Maiden. By matching the symbol of the tulip and displaying it upside down on the front cover, Satrapi is showing the uselessness of binary construction.

Persepolis is a classic bildungsroman, featuring of a young girl going through an extreme case of existential crisis at the same time as her home country. There happen to be two essential reasons that made Persepolis popular among American audiences; first is America’s increased interest in Iran due to their position in the Axis of Evil; second is in Satrapi’s exile to France, which associated her understanding of the way in which Westerners falsely viewed Iranians. Without studying or spending time in Iran, a Westerner will not have the proper empirical evidence to make a judgment on the people of that country. This is potentially destructive because it reinforces the Oriental stereotype, as explained by Said, for nations and religions in the Near East and Asia.

Although Satrapi caters to the Western audience, which justifies her ‘teaching’ them the ways of Iranian life, there still appears cultural clues of Iranian culture, like the icon of the tulip to provide a symbolic identification and unification between East and West; and through this the binaries are weakened and rendered useless. Whether Iranians agree to the order of events of their culture that appear in the graphic novel, Persepolis provides an undoubtedly distinct perspective to a previously veiled segment of society.

Sources:

Christenhusz, Maarten J. M. “Tiptoe through the Tulips – Cultural History, Molecular Phylogenetics and Classification of Tulipa (Liliaceae).” Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 172 (2013): 280-328. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.

Costantino, Manuela. “Marji: Popular Commix Heroine Breathing Life into the Writing of History.” Canadian Review of American Studies 38.3 (2008): 429-47. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Naghibi, Nima, and Andrew O’Malley. “Estranging the Familiar: “East” and “West” in Satrapi’s Persepolis.” (2007): 223-48. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. New York, NY: Pantheon, 2003. Print.

Said, Edward W. “Introduction.” Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.

Schroeder, Heather Lee. A Reader’s Guide to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Melrose Park: Enslow, 2010. Print.

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