Reading Update: Persepolis, Reading Lolita in Tehran

So I’m finally getting around to writing this post…yay me!  I just finished watching The Stepford Wives, and I thought about writing a quick post about that (it is based on a book, after all), but then I told myself: “No Laura. Write the damn post about Persepolis and Reading Lolita in Tehran.  This procrastination has been going on for too long.”

Plus, I just finished Lake Wobegon Days, so I’m already behind on that review.  Oh, my life…

But back to business.  I picked up Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi on a whim; I saw it while running the graphic novel section at work, and since I’ve always wanted to read it, I brought it home.  I finished in only a few days.  As many of you probably already know, Persepolis tells the story of the author, Marjane, and her time growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran.  She writes about her family, getting in trouble in school, buying illicit Michael Jackson paraphenalia, as well as her conflicted and tumultuous relationship with politics and religion.  Like many in Iran, Marjane and her family initially supported the revolution and the removal of the Shah.  Idealistic and well-educated, they believed a democratic government would be instated, and all that the Iranian people had suffered under the Shah (and his Western allies) would be vindicated.

But as Reading Lolita in Tehran shows us, the Iranian educated class was outnumbered and out-maneuvered by those believing in a religious, Islamic state.  As Azar Nafisi, at the time a prominent professor of English Literature, observes in her classroom, her students are militantly divided into Marxists and fundamentalists.  Both reject Western ideals (for different reasons, of course) and so the country evolves into the Islamic, oftentimes frightening, state we know today.  The mullahs turn out to be very effective as government figures (both Nafisi and the Satrapis initially doubt religion’s ability to govern), and as we say, the rest is history.

When outlining this background–which is so crucial to both stories–it’s easy to dip in and out of both books.  I didn’t know much about the Islamic Revolution before reading Persepolis and Reading Lolita, and so the experience was definitely a much-needed education.  I know it’s cliche to say this, but I felt my worldview had been forever altered by reading both books.  Suddenly, I was transported to a world that still exists, if only half a world away.  I was dropped into the lives of two women, women who spent every second of their lives fighting for what little dignity and self-respect was left for women in the years following the revolution.  Both Nafisi and Marjane fight tooth and nail against the veil, as well as stipulations regarding how women could act in public (Marjane tries to convince the police the Michael Jackson on her shirt is actually Malcolm X, while Nafisi describes girls being arrested for eating ice cream too seductively).  I’ve always known of the laws governing Muslim women, but never have I seen such repression on such an intimate level.

As I already mentioned in a few posts, Nafisi rebels by forming the class that would compel her to write this autobiography: a group of girls who would meet, in secret, to read and discuss Western literature.  For a book nerd like myself, reading about the difficulties these girls faced was supremely humbling.  What’s more sad is that I’m probably part of a minority.  I don’t think the majority of Americans, with their declining readership and comfortable ignorance, understands: these girls risked their lives to read the books we take for granted.  They sat in a circle, reading Xeroxed copies of Dickens and Jane Austen, and found meaning and beauty where so many only see words.  Literature was their escape from the brutalities of everyday life, and it was their saving grace.  It gave these girls a sense of self and identity, allowed them to express emotions normally forbidden to women, and allowed them to see the world.  It gave them a space for self-reflection, a space to live.  It’s sad to think that such intense literary passion isn’t found in the luckier parts of the world.

Suffice it to say, I loved Reading Lolita in Tehran.  Besides the stories of her girls and their adventures in literature, the life Nafisi lived is just as inspiring.  As is the life of Marjane Satrapi.  Where Persepolis stands out–and perhaps the reason for its mass popularity–is the perspective of its child protagonist.  Marjane begins her story as a nine-year-old girl.  Seeing the revolution from a child’s eyes is revealing, in that it shows us how these events are much more complicated than we could ever imagine.  Americans (and others in the West) assume a lot about countries like Iran and the Muslim people.  From what we read or see in the news, we think we know.  We think we understand, and can judge.  But how can we ever begin to know what to believe, especially when there are 14-year-old girls who buy illicit nail polish, and English professors who quietly encourage their students to read Nabokov.

I know this review is a bit muddied by now.  It’s been awhile since I read either book, and so much of what I remember about the politics doesn’t come from one book or the other.  I only wish I could praise each book more, or convince you to pick them up for yourselves.  Both were beautifully written, and Satrapi’s artwork from Persepolis was arresting and unforgettable.  I know these books are reccomended time and time again, but I have to say the praise is worth it.  These are stories that need to be told, and it’s important that we know them so that we can help create a better future.

Until you buy or borrow them, though, check out this trailer for the 2007 film based on Persepolis.  Don’t be surprised when it’s in French: it’s the language Marjane grew up learning and speaking, which you’ll learn once you start the book.  I love that the artwork is the same, and if I ever find it here in the Midwest, I’m definitely going to watch it.

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One thought on “Reading Update: Persepolis, Reading Lolita in Tehran

  1. Pingback: Mid-Year Assessment « Paperback Fool

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