Tuesday, February 1, 2011

World Party: How learning history from a graphic novel made me feel like a bad friend

Iran was the country of choice for the month of January in the World Reading Challenge, and I chose Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, the well-known graphic novel turned movie. It was pretty disgraceful of myself that I had not read it yet, especially considering the graphic novel kick I had last year.

Persepolis is the essentially a memoir of a girl and her relationship with her home country, Iran. Satrapi was a child living in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution that began in 1979. Born with a rebellious nature, Satrapi naturally defies the new rules of clothing and entertainment set by the Islamic Regime. But when her parents see this teenage rebellion could actually land her in jail or, worse, dead, they send her to Vienna to attend high school, avoiding the war that has broken out between Iran and Iraq. She later returned to Iran where she attended university before finally self-exiling from her homeland and moving to France.

Despite having a best friend whose father hails directly from Iran, I knew little about Iranian history and culture. [I am ashamed.] As an American child of the nineties, the middle-east is inextricably linked in my head with war and conservative Islam. So I  was absolutely astounded to see and learn that Iranian culture prior to 1980 looks no different from American culture. Once I did further Google Image searching and found that Iranians in the seventies had mustaches and wore white disco pants just like Americans, my mind was blown. It's so amazing to think that a country and society I know as dominated by a conservative religion is only a tiny blip in Persian history.

The history of Iran was, without a doubt, my favorite part of Persepolis. In fact, the section in which Satrapi was in Austria during her teen years was way less exciting than hearing first-hand accounts of this huge, society-altering revolution. Satrapi has a powerful voice and she was never afraid to stand up for both herself and what she saw as logic and fairness, despite the constant risk of arbitrarily being thrown in jail. Reading along as grows up and makes sense of what's going on in her environment felt as rewarding for me as it would've been for her as she reflected on her past writing this book.

I know that the mental image I have of Iran—with conservative Islamic veils and beards—is not at all representative of modern Iran, and that a rich, vibrant culture does exist despite years of rule by the traditional Islamic Regime. But this is now a place I am seriously curious to learn more about, and that's exactly what I've hoped to get out of the books I read for the World Reading Challenge.

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