‘Persepolis’ Author Says ‘A Banned Book … is a Good Book’
When author and artist Marjane Satrapi first published Persepolis, her graphic memoir of growing up in Iran, she didn’t expect it to become one of the most important graphic novels ever penned.
“It was 2000,” she told me via Zoom from her home in Paris, “and I thought maybe the book would work a couple of years and that would be it. But that was before 2001, September, and George Bush came. Trump was such an asshole that now George Bush looks like this nice guy, but he’s a war criminal.”
Within a few years, the United States had WMDed its way deep into the Middle East. At some point along the way, Dick Cheney—presumably while slumbering in a coffin—had dreamed or nightmared up the so-called “Axis of Evil” comprised of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran—three countries that, for all relevant purposes, had nothing to do with one another. Warmongering nonsense or not, it placed the crosshairs on Iran and, consequently, the spotlight on Persepolis and Satrapi, who became an outspoken critic of the administration, likening the religious fundamentalism of Bush to that of the Mullahs in Iran.
In 2007, Satrapi co-wrote and co-directed a film adaptation of Persepolis that was nominated for an Oscar and tied for the Jury Prize at Cannes. Now she’s releasing a 20th-anniversary edition of Persepolis (marking its 2003 publication in English) in response to “what is happening in Iran.”
You probably have at least a cursory awareness of what she’s referring to. About a year ago, in September 2022, anti-government protests exploded across Iran in response to the murder of a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini at the hands of the regime’s morality police, the Basij, for the supposed “crime” of improperly wearing a hijab. As the unrest gained momentum, videos trickled out of the country via social media showing women dancing and burning their headscarves, crowds marching and chanting, ”Woman, Life, Freedom” (the movement’s de facto motto), and government forces attacking protesters. Many were brutally beaten, killed on the spot, or disappeared into prison. The list of those murdered and vanished has grown steadily ever since.
So what are the protesters’ demands?
“They want the fall of the regime,” Satrapi says in no uncertain terms. “And that is what is going to happen. It’s a question of time.”
Iranians are fighting back against 40 years of severe oppression at the hands of the Islamic Republic, a government fueled by an ultra-fundamentalist ideology that rose to power following the Iranian Revolution of 1979. While it is generally repressive, life under the rule of the Islamic Republic is particularly restrictive for women, who cannot travel without male permission, ride bicycles, sing in public… the list goes on and spans freedoms small and large that most of us take for granted. The headscarf—which women are required to wear in public at all times—has become the key symbol of oppression in Iran, and a growing number of women are refusing to wear it. Recently it was announced that enforcement of hijab would be intensified.
In Persepolis, Satrapi relates the events that led up to the current situation better than I can (so go read it), telling the story of how the revolution affected one family through the eyes of a girl who grew up under the regime before self-exiling to Europe.
“I wrote what I went through,” Satrapi explained. “I could not pretend to be a historian or a sociologist or a politician or whatever, but I knew what I had lived.”
Now for its 20th anniversary, the two books of Persepolis have been compiled into a single hardcover edition for the first time, featuring both a new cover and introduction addressing the protests.
Persepolis is, of course, banned in Iran. This has not stopped Iranians from reading it.
“Lots of Iranians found themselves in the story, so the reaction was very good,” Satrapi told me. “And not only them, but anybody who lived in a dictatorship. I had people from Chile, for example, who made lots of connections. Everybody who went through a coup or dictatorship, and political prisoners… in the democratic world these things look far away because the law means something. In a democracy it’s a state of law. In a country like mine there is no state of law. I mean, there is a law, it is in the constitution, but it’s not respected at all. They can do whatever they want however they want.
“In America you experienced it a little bit after 9/11 and the Patriotic Act when basically they could do whatever they wanted with you. If you were supposed to be the terrorist they could fuck you up and you don’t have the right to defend yourself. But it was a brief period of time. We live this way.”
I asked if she had received negative reactions from her fellow Iranians beyond the official ban. She shrugged.
“[Censorship] will only make these young people read our books more. It’s like that first joint you smoke because it’s forbidden. Anything that is forbidden is much more attractive.”
“The people who talk to me and I talk to them are the people who like me and I like them. My enemies won’t call me to tell me how much they hate me and that they want to shit in my face. There must be some of them, but since they don’t talk to me and I don’t talk to them, I don’t know. I find lots of support and love from people, to be honest.”
While Persepolis was a bestseller in the United States, it has not always found support and love among Americans. In fact, it has appeared on the American Library Association’s list of the Most Challenged Books in the country having been repeatedly banned from school libraries across the nation. The first ban came when a parent accused it of containing scenes of pornography.
“I don’t know where they’ve seen the sexual scenes,” Satrapi told me. “Where? Where are they?”
She’s right, by the way—it takes an acutely puritanical mind to read Persepolis and see pornography.
“Then it was acts of torture,” she said of the second ban, “because I have a frame where I say what [the Islamic Republic] did to political prisoners. The same people—their kids play War Zone and it’s all shooting and killing and exploding brains and that is not a problem.”
Persepolis does contain brief depictions of the horrors of torture at the hands of the government (which seems like something worth learning about to), as well as blink-and-you’ll-miss-it allusions to sex, which aroused the ire of—as you might expect—a handful of conservative parents. The third challenge in a Pennsylvania school district, however, came from the other end of the political spectrum.
As Satrapi explained, “The third wave was this liberal—for me they are the worst, the good-thinking liberal—saying the book was Islamophobic. And the Imam of Philadelphia said, It’s not Islamophobic, and I’m an Imam. She talks about fanaticism. Islamophobia is when you hate all Muslims. If someone said the Inquisition was very bad, would you say, Ah! You are anti-Christian! No, it’s just a part of the history.”
But Satrapi is undeterred by the bans and is indeed rather delighted by them.
“As I said in the introduction [to Persepolis],” she declared, “being alongside Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde is a very nice place to be. A banned book—most of the time—is a good book. You never have a mediocre author that is banned. That only shows that you’re great. And that will only make these young people read our books more. It’s like that first joint you smoke because it’s forbidden. Anything that is forbidden is much more attractive.
“If you don’t want to listen to something, you just don’t listen to it. If you don’t like a book, you don’t buy it. If you don’t like a film, you don’t need to go watch it. But you cannot ban it. The only thing that is to be banned is to ban. Everybody is free to have even the weirdest ideas, and they can say it.
“A feminist revolution that is happening [in Iran] under the eye of everyone, and the Left, the liberals everywhere, they are so scared of this fucking Islamophobia that they do nothing.”
“When they killed those [Charlie Hebdo] cartoonists in France, I got a phone call from [an American journalist] and they asked me, Did they go too far with their cartoons? This is not the question. The question is, do you shoot a man because he has made a drawing? And the response to that is no. You cannot shoot someone because he draws something you don’t like. You can just not look at this drawing. Or if you want to give an answer, you answer with another drawing. Justifying the murder of cartoonists because they have gone too far into blasphemy… so what? So if I tell you I fucked God, are you gonna come and cut my throat too? I can say it. Did I go too far?”
Over the course of our talk, it becomes apparent that Satrapi is highly concerned with the tendency by some on the political left to avoid criticizing fundamentalism out of a fear of appearing Islamophobic. This culminated in a scathing invective against the good-thinking liberal. Allow me to get out of the way and quote her at length:
“Trump went so much in the direction of being nasty and openly racist and openly homophobic that as a reaction people become too much on the other side, and this is not good either. You have to have a sense of criticism. You cannot just say, Everything that is different, we embrace it all, we love it all. You’re harming us! The people that suffer from these [fundamentalists], they’re not Americans, it’s us [Iranians]. By banning you’re not making freedom, you’re actually fucking it up.
“The fanaticism of the liberal is not much better than the other fanaticism. It’s a good-hearted racism versus a bad-hearted racism. Nice racism versus nasty racism. It is the consideration that the ‘other one’ is not like me. So the bad racist will say, I hate him, and the other, I will embrace all of it because unity—I will love all of it. But you cannot love all of it. We are human beings and we cannot love everything or hate everything. Life is nuanced.
“Now [in Iran] is a feminist revolution that is happening under the eye of everyone, and the left, the liberals everywhere, they are so scared of this fucking Islamophobia that they do nothing. The states and the governments and the politicians do nothing—that’s normal. They are cynical, we know that. But where are the intellectuals? Where are the feminists? Nobody is there. Why? Because they’re so scared that they will be called Islamophobic. It’s complete silence for bad reasons. People are stupid.
“I remember many years ago I worked on this commission of French cinema where we decided who to give money to, and there was this woman who wanted to make a documentary about the Aboriginals in Australia. And they were like, The Abos are the land and they are the nature and all this and that. And it came to me that this was a positive racist documentary, because the person she’s describing is a koala. An animal. A human being is complex. A human being is cynical. A human being is violent. What she’s describing are not human beings, they are animals and I think it is very condescending. An ‘Abo’ is a human being who is capable of humor, who is capable of murder, who is capable of kindness. So it’s a nice version of racism, reducing people to the state of cute animals. It’s fucked-up.
“[Once I was told], We really want to make this film with you because we want to have a female director. I’m like, You know that the film, I make it from this part of my body [frames her head] which means that my boobs and everything under—they’re absolutely not involved. It happens from here and up. So if you want to work with me, I hope there are more reasons than only my boobs. Because they don’t play a major role. You may think for example that I have a vision, that I’m talented, whatever, but don’t give me a job because I’m a woman. I think this is very condescending.”
This brought us to a discussion of cultural change in Iran, which Satrapi asserts is ready to take progressive steps forward.
“The regime will fall down. When? I don’t have a crystal ball so I cannot say. But it will not take a long time.”
— Marjane Satrapi
“The most important part of the revolution is the cultural revolution,” she explained. “You have to have a democratic culture. America for a long time in Afghanistan said, We will bomb them then we’ll put a few Coca Cola vending machines and poof! We have a democracy. And at the same time you see this Afghani woman [on the news] who they ask, Who are you going to vote for? And she says, I do not know if my husband will let me vote or not. If the culture is not installed, if you still think that your husband has to give you the right to go to vote, then you don’t have this culture yet. Now, the youth [of Iran] has the culture.
“In March 1979, my mother went out to demonstrate against the veil (I was with her) and there were a few hundred men (my dad was one of them)—very few men. Nobody actually supported the feminist movement, even the leftists. They said this is a question of social class. They didn’t understand that women’s rights are human rights.
“Then they made this law that we were worth half of the men, and women understood that you had to make the revolution inside your house—inside yourself. As a result of telling us that we were worth half of the men, we studied two times more than the men. Now 70 percent of Iranian engineers are women.
“The cultural revolution has been made, male and female. You see now our girls—they went out, and our boys went to support them. And the ones that are getting executed one after the other… are men. They’re boys. So now it’s women and men together, veiled and unveiled together.”
Iranians are roiling with anticipation at what the future holds for their nation, which Satrapi pointed out is the oldest continuously existing country on Earth. That’s a lot of history, and we’re watching one of the pivotal moments in that history play out before our very eyes.
So what comes next?
“You have a government with modern tools that thinks like the Middle Ages. You have a young population that is extremely modern. You have a country that is the most secular in West Asia. You have more than 80 percent of people who don’t want the regime. You have an economic situation that is a disaster. You have a middle class that has disappeared. People are poorer and poorer every day. So you put all of these factors together—the result is that the regime will fall down. When? I don’t have a crystal ball so I cannot say. But it will not take a long time. It’s like a bomb that is going to explode sooner or later. Will it explode? Yes.”
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