Guest book review by Dana R. Casey.
The graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi has become ubiquitous in America’s classrooms. Aside from the lowering of standards that is represented by the use of a graphic novel in a high school English classroom, this “novel” should raise some red flags for parents.
The novel shows the Iranian Islamic Revolution from the point of view of Marji, a preteen at the start of the revolution. The story opens with the hijab (veil) being imposed on Marji and her classmates for the first time. They are too young to understand the implications of the hijab and treat them as an irritating imposition or a toy to be used as a jump rope or horsey reins.
From the beginning, Marji gets an “education” from her family about the historical events that led up to the revolution. Her family, excited about the revolution at first because they are anti-shah communist intellectuals, soon realizes that the revolution has been usurped by Islamic radicals. As the plot develops, Marji comes of age as she watches her world become more limited and dangerous for everyone in general and for women in particular. Marji is finally sent to live in Austria at the end of the novel, not knowing if she will ever see her family again. There is a part two to answer that question, but that is for the next review. Be aware that both part one and part two are sometimes combined into one novel.
One of my first concerns with Persepolis, is its overtly positive presentation of communism and leftism. Marji’s parents, in trying to help her understand the revolution which they support at first, provide books and literature for her to read. The texts are about Castro, Palestine, Marxism, Hamid Ashraf, Iranian leftist would-be guerrilla revolutionary, and the evil Americans killing young Vietnamese communists. These texts “enlighten” her and she becomes fascinated with Karl Marx, who replaces her earlier fascination with God.
In a chapter called “The Heroes” Marji discusses two of the political prisoners released after the revolution. Both are communists, both are friends of the family, and both were imprisoned by the evil shah (the propaganda on the shah will be examined later) and would later be re-imprisoned and executed by the Islamic regime.
Her Uncle Anoosh who was also imprisoned by the shah, first supported Marji’s great Uncle Fereydoon who “elected himself Minister of Justice” in the Iranian province of Azerbaijan, which he and his revolutionary friends “declared” independent. He was eventually arrested and executed by the shah, but Anoosh escaped to the Soviet Union where he received a PhD. in Marxism-Leninism. After returning to Iran, he is arrested by the shah, but freed just before the revolution. Marji hangs on every word of her uncle, admiring his revolutionary sacrifices. Anoosh, becoming disappointed in the apparent religious turn of the revolution, declares, “But the religious don’t know how to govern. They will return to their mosques. The proletariat shall rule! It’s inevitable!!!That’s just what Lenin explained in ‘The State and the Revolution.’” Anoosh is ultimately also arrested and executed by the Islamic regime.
My second concern was the revisionist history. I nearly threw the book across the room when Marji’s grandmother says, “You know, my child, since the dawn of time dynasties have succeeded each other, but the kings always kept their promises. The shah kept none…” What really bothered me about this statement are the absolutes: kings always kept their promises; the shah kept NONE! Which kings have kept all of their promises? I would like to have one king revealed to me who kept all of his promises, a king from any country, anywhere, at any point in time.
The shah was certainly no angel by American standards, but by Middle Eastern standards, he was the most modern leader of his time. Under his rule, more Iranians were educated; class lines blurred; freedoms expanded; highways, railroads and universities were constructed; women had the full rights of women in western countries and were government leaders, university professors, lawyers, and doctors; Tehran was a cosmopolitan city. Did the shah imprison and torture revolutionaries and communists? Yep, but if we evaluate him against Middle Eastern standards, his actions paled compared to those in countries around him and, let’s face it, he was fighting communists and Islamists who were trying to take over the country. There is no doubt that the average, non-revolutionary citizen lived a freer life under the shah than under the ayatollah.
In fact, “Amnesty International … finally concluded in late 1978 that there were less than 2,400 political prisoners in the shah’s jails.” Under the Ayatollah “Amnesty International estimates the total number of deaths between 4,500 and 5,000, [and] … as many as 30,000 political prisoners, including children as young as 13…” These inconvenient facts were suspiciously absent from the materials provided to me in the curriculum supplied with this novel by my school system. These materials included several articles that took a positive stance on the hijab and none against.
Ironically, one issue that raises its head repeatedly is Marji’s education. Her parents are determined that she receive a French education. She is in a French school at the beginning the novel, her parents struggle to keep her in French schools throughout all of the difficulties of the post-revolution. They finally send her out of the country to a friend in Austria where she will again study at a French school. I am left to wonder why such a dedicated communist family would not send their daughter to Moscow to study. Apparently a Western education is superior.
Much of the rest of the book deals with the realities of life under an Islamic totalitarian regime. There are constant jabs against the West throughout, but having known several refugees from Iran, much of the oppression of the Islamic regime rings true. Of course Satrapi fails to realize that life under a communist totalitarian regime would have been just as oppressive to any citizen who dared oppose them.
One additional concern is the graphic elements in the novel, both in pictures and in language. Four letter words are scattered throughout. One of the more brutal lines comes from the mother when she is stranded after her car breaks down. She is approached by two fundamentalist thugs who say to her as she reports, “Women like me [unveiled] should be pushed up against the wall and fucked and then thrown in the garbage.” Does this truthfully reveal life in Islamic Iran? No doubt. Does it belong in a book being given to 7th, 8th, & 9th graders? Absolutely not!
There are offensive visual elements too. A man who has been tortured is on the ground while a guard urinates on his whip-marked back. The guard’s penis is clearly drawn. Another man is shown being burned with an iron. A third man is cut into pieces.
One of the most disturbing examples of the brutal contents in this novel is the discussion about Marji’s friend, only 12 years old too, who is executed. Before she is executed, she is raped, because it is illegal to execute virgins. The rapist then sends the family a symbolic bride price. I do not think that such graphic images and human cruelty should be given to young teens. The School Library Journal omits any mention of these elements which, as a resource for making book choices used by schools and school libraries, is a serious omission.
Finally, I have to say that I do not like Marji. She is arrogant, obnoxious, defiant, and difficult to deal with on many levels. Of course, this could be said of many teens. She smokes, she cuts school, she back-talks her teachers, and she actually punches a principal in the face (though that woman may have had it coming). But many of my students love Marji and are surprised to see an Iranian teen go through some of the same challenges and confusions that they face. In fact, my students love this novel completely which is why we should be concerned about the propaganda and leftism presented in the tale. American students are absorbing this misinformation in an appealing package. They receive no counter-balancing perspective and so they will walk away from this book sympathetic to leftists and communists.
Dana R. Casey is a veteran high school English teacher of more than two decades in an East-coast urban system. She is a life-long student of theology, philosophy, and politics, dedicated to the true Liberalism of the Enlightenment, as defined by our Founders and enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights.