The Iranian regime has its visions of Iran, which it expresses in public art that hangs above Tehran's traffic-snarled streets: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the thunderous-browed father of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, scowls down from a giant mural; young men who perished in the eight-year war with Iraq, barely bearded, gaze out from their martyrs' fields of painted red tulips; protesters throw rocks at an Israeli flag; a Statue of Liberty sports a skull for a head; more mullahs, more martyrs. We Americans have our visions of Iran, too: seething crowds besieging the U.S. embassy, fanatical women in chadors. For us, the images add up to a nation with which we have no official diplomatic relations, only bitter words.
To hear her tell it, Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi is doing battle with these images -- the ones produced by both the United States and Iran. Her ammunition? The memoir of her childhood, Persepolis, a "comic," as she calls it, that tells the story of her coming of age during the violent birth of the Islamic Republic. She eschews the stereotypes Americans find so familiar (mullahs and chador-clad women) and replaces them with complex portraits of the government's unknown victims and her own defiant, progressive mother. Above all, Persepolis details the adolescence of a young Iranian girl -- rebellious, fiercely intelligent and furious at the hypocrisy of a revolution that promised freedom and delivered tyranny.
Iran is full of many such girls now, said Satrapi, from her Washington hotel room last month. Indeed, young women form a significant part of the pro-democracy protests that have rocked Iran's cities all this week; nearly 70 percent of Iran's population is under 30, and many of these children of the revolution have turned against it. As for why the protests have erupted, Persepolis, in chronicling the revolution from its bloody beginning, suggests ample answers.
Satrapi introduces herself to readers as Marji, a precocious child who's sure that God, a benevolent white-haired, amorphous figure with whom she has bedtime conversations, has selected her as Islam's next prophet. As the story unfolds, Marji's sense of injustice spurs her on: Worried about her grandmother's knees and ashamed of her father's Cadillac and their maid, she decrees in her "holy book" that no old people should suffer, everyone should have a car and maids should eat at the table with everyone else.
What happens when such a child hears of the terrors of the shah's rule? She wants to join the revolutionary protests. When the British- and U.S.-supported leader flees at last, Marji and her family rejoice -- until things begin to go terribly wrong. Chadors come out, schoolchildren are separated by gender and former political prisoners, released after the toppling of the shah's regime, begin dying mysterious deaths. Even the young aren't spared: Marji meets an innocent teenager who is targeted and executed for her communist beliefs.
Marji's exceptional family provides a buffer of sorts. The little girl is the great-granddaughter of the last emperor of Iran; her parents are privileged, intellectual Marxists who give their daughter a comic book on dialectic materialism. "It was funny to see how much Marx and God looked like each other," Marji muses in the book. "Though Marx's hair was a bit curlier." But soon neither Marx nor God can spare Marji the toll the regime will take on her life, transforming her into a dangerously outspoken young woman.
Persepolis beautifully captures the quality of childhood memories -- the misperceptions and misunderstandings of overheard conversations, the moments of piercing clarity into adults' hypocrisy and deception. Satrapi depicts the growing darkness of the Islamic regime in rich, inky black-and-white drawings, a style critics have called faux-naïf. "I don't have any faux-naïf style," Satrapi responds. "I cannot do any better than that!" Nevertheless, some of her drawings reflect the perspectives and styles seen in Persian miniatures and the friezes on Iran's ancient ruins -- a potent combination when paired with the emotional immediacy of her high-contrast images. Satrapi has also drawn her adult self for the back flap of Persepolis -- a figure clad in all black, cigarette in hand -- a striking likeness of the woman Marji has grown up to be, a self-defined "representative of the axis of evil."
"It is not to send myself flowers," Satrapi tells me, laughing, "but I have a sense of justice." The child who rebelled against the Iranian regime now finds fault with U.S. foreign policy; it's not clear which she wants to discuss more, her book or her views on the United States. "How can you talk about human rights and democracy and support China and Saudi Arabia?" she asks. Democracy in Afghanistan? "It's just the same people running the country; they just shaved their beards. Democracy is not a matter of a razor and shaving cream."
Sitting in a cloud of smoke, puffing, gesturing with an ever-present cigarette, clad in a black shawl, black sweater, black blouse, black skirt, black tights, black shoes and black liquid eyeliner, Satrapi says she opposes the war on Iraq, too. The young Iranian boys who strode across Iraqi minefields armed with nothing but a golden "key to paradise" around their necks, she says -- are they really so different from the young U.S. soldiers with green cards who died in Operation Freedom, and then got their citizenship?
I pause to think, but Satrapi has moved on in a flood of rapid-fire, French-accented English, dark eyes flashing as she punctuates her most passionate statements with laughter and cigarette smoke. She speaks five languages. (Persepolis ends with her parents sending her to boarding school in Austria, out of fear of the trouble her outspokenness might bring at home). She studied illustration in Strasbourg and Tehran, and now lives in France, where she is working on a sequel that will detail her years in Austria. Satrapi says she wrote Persepolis to humanize her homeland and to depict the struggles and sacrifices of ordinary Iranians; she worked in the comic form to bring humor, but also precision, to her book. Without the illustrations, Satrapi says, readers would think that her mother wore a chador all the time. She snorts.
The "axis of evil" branding rankles in particular. When Satrapi arrived in the United States for her book tour, she was detained at the airport, photographed and questioned for over an hour and a half. One security official heckled her over the pronunciation of Iran -- "Why do you call it Ee-ran? Not Eye-ran?" After her ordeal, she fainted "like a lady from the 19th century."
Satrapi often turns her critical eye on herself. In her book, she contrasts the exploding bodies of poor Iranians sent to die in the Iraqi War with her attendance at a punk-rock party -- well-off children jumping around, Marji in a sweater her mother knitted full of holes. Even in her hotel room, that finely tuned awareness of inequality never leaves her. "You can call me Alexis," she says, shaking her head in dismay. "This is the room of Joan Collins [the actress who portrayed the glamorous, malignant Alexis] in Dynasty," she declares, jumping up and gesturing at the elaborate trappings of the hotel room her publisher has reserved for her. "I can check my e-mail on my bed, my God." With that, we raid the minibar for juice.
But it is when Satrapi discusses Iran-U.S. relations that she becomes the most animated. She still despises the regime, one that keeps much of the oil-rich country in poverty, jails journalists, deems women unequal to men and operates under a constitution that hampers the efforts of reformers at every turn. Nevertheless, she believes there's hope for Iran -- if the United States doesn't interfere. Most analysts, conservative and progressive, would agree with Satrapi's claim that Iran's young people are the strongest forces for change. She breaks with American neoconservatives, however, in her insistence that the United States should not foment "regime change" in Iran. Instead, she says, America should allow war- and revolution-weary Iranians to push for their own, slower evolution. This, she argues, would lead to more permanent reform than the lightning bolt of revolution ever could.
The change could be years in coming. "Do you think it gives me pleasure to talk about an evolution?" Satrapi asks. "Evolution takes such a long time that I might never see my country free; I might die before that. But I don't care, because there's an after me also, and I want my kids and the kids of my kids to see their country free." Resistance is necessary, if absurd. "Of course I want to change the world," she says, "and of course it is idiotic."
In the early panels of Persepolis, God appears frequently, a white mass with Marji swaddled in his embrace. This is before the horrors of the revolution forced her to drive God away. In the scene where Marji does so, her small, angry figure stands on her bed, in tears, pointing at the door. Did God ever come back to visit her again? Satrapi pauses. "No, never," she says at last. Her passionate voice is muffled, and she falls momentarily silent for the first time. "Never," she says again. "You know. When you know that a 17-year-old girl can get executed just because she thought differently from the other ones, then you stop believing in a divine justice." Her voice low, Satrapi is speaking not only of herself but of the young people battling the Iranian regime today. "And you say, then, the justice should come from you," she says. "You should make this justice. No above power, no one else, can do it for you."
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect contributing editor.