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Iran: Artist Strikes a Nerve With 'Graphic' Tale Of Her Childhood

  • Golnaz Esfandiari --> Marjane Satrapi is an Iranian artist who has become famous for "Persepolis," the story of her childhood during the Islamic Revolution told in the form of a "graphic novel," or long-form comic book. "Persepolis," published last year to great success in France, has since been translated into many languages, including English, Italian, German, Portuguese, Dutch, and Finnish. RFE/RL talked with Satrapi about her book and her future projects.

Washington, 11 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "Persepolis" is the sad story of a child growing up between the ages of 6 and 14 in Tehran during the days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, its aftermath and the devastating Iran-Iraq War.

But the autobiographical tale by author and artist Marjane Satrapi -- revealed in simple, stark, black-and-white images -- is told with such humor that it elicits as many smiles as it does tears. Satrapi's book has been widely acclaimed, with some critics comparing it to Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus," which chronicled his father's experiences at Auschwitz.

Satrapi's book has been widely acclaimed, with some critics comparing it to Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus," which chronicled his father's experiences at Auschwitz.
In an interview with RFE/RL, the 35-year-old Satrapi, who lives in Paris, said she decided to write the book after she moved to Europe and faced a number of stereotypes about Iran and Iranians. "I was confronted by people who didn't have any idea how my country was, and there was lots of prejudice about Iran because in the '80s [Iran represented] the bad, the evil, and there were so many wrong ideas about my country," she said. "And I kept on [repeating] this story forever and ever, trying to explain to people that the situation was not that easy and the world was much more complex, especially the government of Iran, which is not a democratic government and is not representative of its people, etc., etc. And finally I said that if I make the book, I'll write it for once and for all, and I don't have to repeat it forever."

Satrapi said that, following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran -- a country with 2,500 years of civilization behind it -- has been mostly discussed in connection with fundamentalism and terrorism. She said that by writing "Persepolis," she wanted to show the world that all Iranians are not religious fanatics. "Suddenly, we had this image of bad terrorist people and the Iranian people, they were...the men were bearded and all of them looked like gorillas, and the women were in the black chador, and they looked like black birds," she said. "And when I came to Europe, the questions [people used to ask me] were -- how many wives does your father have and have you ever heard any pop music in your country? You know, very stupid questions."

"Persepolis" has been praised by critics for its firsthand account of life in postrevolution Iran and the country's transition into an Islamic society. It was a turbulent time. Co-educational schools were closed. Pop music was banned, with tapes sold only on the black market. During the Iran-Iraq War, young Iranian boys were sent to the front lines with a golden key, which was supposed to open heaven's door if they died in battle.

In the first chapter of "Persepolis," Marji, the main character, talks about the veil. Shortly after the Islamic Revolution, wearing head scarves in public became mandatory for women and girls. Marji says, "We didn't really like to wear the veil, especially since we didn't understand why we had to."

In several of the images, young girls are shown at school playing with their veils. One of them puts the veil on her face and says, "Ooh, I'm the monster of darkness." Another girl is strangling her friend with the veil and saying, "Execution in the name of freedom." And another one is using her scarf as a jump-rope.

Wearing head scarves or other overt religious symbols was recently banned in schools in France, where Satrapi lives. In her opinion, forcing women not to wear head scarves is as bad as forcing them to wear them.

Satrapi's comic strips and illustrations have appeared in such notable publications as "Liberation," "El Pais," "Internazionale," "The New York Times" and "The New Yorker." She said she is working on a new book called "Khoreshte Aloo," or chicken with plums, which is an Iranian dish. The book is set to be published in France in November.

Satrapi talked about the plot: "There is this musician. He is a tar [a stringed instrument] player. Well, his wife breaks his tar, so he buys the first, then the second, then the third and the fourth tar, and none of them makes the sound that he would like to listen to. And so he decides to die, and he lies down in his bed, and eight days later he dies. The story [of the book] is actually these eight days, and at the end of the book you understand that it's not so much his instrument that was broken that made him die, [but] you discover in the book that the problem is that he had lost the pleasure of playing the instrument."

Satrapi said she is deeply convinced that people die when they lose the "pleasure of living." Such a fate is unlikely to befall Satrapi. She is full of "joie de vivre" and said she plans to write and illustrate more stories about people who have touched her heart.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at