A Migratory Life in Words & Pictures: M. Satrapi’s Persepolis

by Suman Saha

In Terhi Rantanen’s The Media and Globalization, the author develops a process of study that she refers to as global mediagraphy. It involves documenting the media use of four generations of three different families, each hailing from a different region in the world. These generations experience migration, which affects their access to, and thus consumption of, mass media. My essay aims at a mediagraphy of the Iranian-born writer Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical rendition of a migratory life in Persepolis (2003). Satrapi’s life story becomes, among other things, an interesting case study of the complex intersections of local and global along the dimensions of class, gender, politics, and culture.

As the story shows, Satrapi’s years in Iran as a child are spent in a country trying to reject foreign influences, from a revolt that ended with a pro-Western leader in exile and a more insular ruler taking his place to a lengthy war with a neighboring country. Her time in Europe is characterized by feeling as if she does not truly belong there, and she ultimately does not achieve much in the way of hybridization or cosmopolitanism, particularly since she does not find any Iranian presence outside of herself. She mentions that the image some of the Europeans people she encounters have of Iranians is a negative one. Upon her return she still does not assimilate into Iranian society, due to the same repressive government she was trying to get away from in the first place. The story is about someone who is unable to find an anchor when immersed in two different societies separately. However, things are somewhat easier for her when she is able to sample Western media (illicitly) from her home in Tehran. That fusion raises interesting thoughts about the possibilities of globalized culture via media production and reception. Also noteworthy is Persepolis’ own place in the context of mediated globalization, especially since it recreates Marjane Satrapi’s own hybridity. This is a work of Western media that is about the experience of one Middle Eastern individual, and her relationship with the society she was born and raised in, intended for a Western audience. The reader finds images of a culture not his or her own while still planted firmly at home. It was originally published in France and then translated into English and published in the United States and Canada in 2003. Its reach is transcontinental, particularly since 2007, when the feature film adaptation was released, potentially enlarging the audience for the story. Considered a work of French cinema, the film was co-directed by the author in Paris with a French artist named Vincent Paronnaud, and it was produced entirely by a French crew. The animators and original voice cast are all French, and some of the French actors dubbed the voices for the same characters in the English language version. As an Iranian living and working in France, perhaps telling her own story through mass media has led Satrapi to experience a type of cultural coexistence that she can live with.

The Cultural Contradictions of the Iranian Revolution

The Iranian Revolution was punctuated by the installation into power of the Shiite clergyman Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the early days of 1979. It came about as a response to conservative forces objecting to the Shah of Iran’s efforts to modernize (some may say “Westernize” -- Peter Edidin uses the two words synonymously in his article) the country, continuing the work of his father Reza, the previous Shah. According to Edidin, the Shah’s pro-West stance led to then-President Jimmy Carter traveling to Tehran and proclaiming Iran “an island of stability,” in contrast to its neighbors in the Middle East (Edidin 24). The people of Iran, which Edidin writes was “90 percent Shiite Muslim,” found the decades of Westernization very problematic. Zephie Begolo writes about the first Shah’s outlawing in 1925 the veil that women were up until then mandated to wear over their head and face, and the impact it had culturally: “the law on veiling was oppressive. The Islamic cultural code that associated male honour with veiling was so deeply ingrained into the Iranian psyche that forced unveiling was seen by most people not as a triumph of modernization but as an act of shame” (Begolo 42). This “ingrained” culture manifested itself during the second Shah’s rule as well. Begolo writes that many people felt that rapid industrialization, which led to overcrowded urban environments that were not ready for such a change, and other pro-West initiatives put forth by the Shah were undermining traditional Persian culture. This feeling intensified in 1953 when Mohammad Mossadeq, the Prime Minister of Iran who had temporarily usurped control from the Shah, was ousted in a coup that was backed by the American CIA after he nationalized Iranian oil two years earlier. The coup returned the Shah to power. Edidin makes mention of the fact that American influence had been encroaching upon Iranian governmental policy, industry, culture, and education. He also writes about government corruption brought about by a flourishing economy as well as the incongruous forming of SAVAK, a secret police that brutally enforced the Shah’s Western policies by silencing opponents through imprisonment, torture, and murder. The revolution itself started on November 4, 1978 when young Iranians seized the United States Embassy in Tehran and took 66 hostages, spurring a hostage crisis that lasted 444 days, ending on January 20, 1980, upon the inauguration of President Reagan. In January of 1979, the Shah was exiled from Iran, and Ayatollah Khomeini took over, reversing all pro-Western policies and creating a conservative theocratic state. Political opponents were still dealt with the same way as they were under the Shah.

Appadurai’s concept of the ideoscape presents itself early in Persepolis. Young Marjane Satrapi is a little girl during the Revolution, and in 1980, at the age of ten, she is mandated to wear a veil, which she and her friends at school resist. Soon, issues of ideas, rights, sovereignty and freedom come up, as is consistent with Appadurai’s model, when the boys and girls at Marjane’s school are separated in class, and soon thereafter, all bilingual schools were closed (Marjane attended a non-religious French school). Marjane’s mother Taji demonstrates against the mandatory veiling, and her picture is taken by a German photographer. The picture is printed in media all over Europe and eventually makes its way back to Iran, which causes Taji to fear for any repercussions. The speedy dissemination of the photograph, and its wide distribution, denotes the mediascape, which is occurring within the ideoscape. Taji and her husband Ebi are Communists who initially favor the revolution, believing it will bring about a Communist government, which will put an end to Western imperialism. They encourage their daughter to read books about Communist ideology, and even tell her “the truth” about her background: that she is the great-granddaughter of the last emperor of Persia who was overthrown by the first Shah. The story communicates the unstable ideological landscape for the young Satrapi as she changes her ideas about the Shah, and by extension about herself and her home. Soon the ideoscape of Persepolis again changes, as Satrapi’s family starts getting word that friends of theirs who were imprisoned by the Shah were now either being killed by Ayatollah Khomeini’s forces, or were leaving the country out of fear of such happening to them. Her uncle Anoosh is arrested and sentenced to death; he is branded a Russian spy in the news reports of his death.

The micro- perspective on culture and globalization in Persepolis is presented via a critique of the new government’s mandates and laws, in this case, the once- again mandated wearing of veils by women when in public. The reason given on the news is that men cannot control their sexual urges when they see a woman whose hair is uncovered as they are excited by rays that are given off by the hair. Ebi is incredulous, and exclaims, “they think all men are perverts!” (Satrapi 2003, 74). Begolo writes about the veil as a symbolic political tool in Iran:

Enforcing the veil was a means, not an end. It showed the Islamic leaders’ desire to create a reactionary, oppositional identity…For the first time in Iranian history, the country’s stamps featured a woman in a chador—a clear message to be sent around the world, leaving it in no doubt that the Islamic Revolution had taken place. Women were the embodiment of cultural authenticity…[t]hey provided a visual representation of the practices that were to be accepted in the new order under which the West emerged as inferior (Begolo 42).

The above passage brings to mind Appadurai’s mediascape. A law was passed in order to create a readily available real-life image that encapsulates the government’s ideology and the characteristics of its rule. Not only did Ayatollah Khomeini close Iran off to the West, but by putting the image of the covered woman on the stamp, he created a situation where this image would be disseminated as shorthand for what the society and culture at large would look like under his rule, and he could do so without overt interaction. The fact that these stamps were in circulation would lead to the populace spreading the message for him, even to other countries. It is an example of media as politics.

After attending a demonstration against the veil that turns violent, Marjane and her parents go on a vacation to Europe. While in Spain, they view a Spanish-language news report that shows a map of Iran being covered by a dark cloud. Not understanding Spanish, Taji figures that the news report is about pollution. Upon returning to Tehran, they learn that Iran and Iraq have started to fight a war. Ebi has stopped trusting the local television news, so he listens to BBC News on the radio in order to check up on what is being broadcast. This brings up ideas of the macro perspective of globalization and media. This scene takes place in the early 1980’s, and anticipates the modern day information society. Ebi is not beholden to local news media, and can tune into Western media, despite the ban on all Western provisions. Rantanen writes about “mediated cosmopolitanism,” and the “zones” that one can visit in order to take on more cosmopolitan qualities. She writes that one of these zones comes in the form of media and communication: “the media can provide access to the world outside one’s own place” (Rantanen 2005, 125). Satrapi’s exposure to Western news and products makes her a misfit in Islamist Iran, however, and so her parents decide to send her to live with a family friend in Vienna.

The interlude in Vienna shows Marjane experimenting with sex and drugs but attempts at forced homogenization (at one point, she hides her Iranian heritage from a boy who is interested in her, claiming to actually be French) leaves her feeling empty. She has a steady boyfriend for two years, but when they break up due to his infidelity, she realizes that her identity was largely tied to him, and she did not have one of her own. Despondent, she returns to Iran. In Iran, Marjane continues to struggle with the restrictions put on her by the government and society, going through a phase of adjustment that ends in a failed marriage. She spends most of her time at her parents’ house, where she watches television on their new satellite dish. The advent of the satellite dish is something of a momentous occasion in Tehran. When a friend named Fariborz gets one, Marjane rushes over to his house along with some friends from the college. She writes: “The satellite antenna was synonymous with the opening up of the rest of the world. We could finally experience a view different from the one dictated by our government. We spent the entire day at Fariborz’s watching MTV and Eurosport. By the end of the evening, our minds were much broader!” The effect is somewhat transitory, however, and Satrapi decides to leave Iran, this time for good. Her father states that “[y]ou weren’t made to live here. We Iranians, we’re crushed not only by the government but by the weight of our traditions!” In turn, Taji states that “[o]ur revolution set us back fifty years. It will take generations for all this to evolve” (Satrapi 2003,185). Satrapi’s story of migration allows her to insert herself within this simultaneously generational, national and global narrative.