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Persepolis | Context


Historical Foundations of Iran

Iran is located in southwestern Asia, sandwiched between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Humans have lived in the region since the Stone Age (approximately 100,000 BCE). Iran's culture and society evolved much later—during the Achaemenian period (559–330 BCE). The Achaemenids referred to themselves both as Persians and Aryans (from which the word Iran was derived).

In Persepolis, author Marjane Satrapi says the people of Iran were subject to "2500 years of tyranny and submission." That's in part because the country's central location and proximity to water made it an attractive target to invaders looking to expand their territory and influence. The first major change of power was between 334 and 330 BCE, when Macedonian (Greek) troops conquered the Achaemenian Empire. Their commander and king, Alexander the Great, ordered the destruction of Iran's capital city, Persepolis, to symbolize the end of the Achaemenian era and the introduction of Greek civilization into western Asia. Eager for a peaceful transition, Alexander encouraged the intermingling of Greek and Persian customs, as well as the intermingling of people of different nationalities. Western ideas such as weight and measure systems were introduced, but Persian culture, for the most part, stayed the same.

Big changes didn't occur until 640 CE during the first Arab invasion, which is what Marjane is talking about when she becomes agitated about attacks from Iraq being "[t]he second invasion in 1400 years!" The Arabs brought with them the religion of Islam, and the Persians were forced to forsake their customs and beliefs for those of their conquerors. Despite several more regime changes, Arab rule lasted until 829—and had the most profound effect on the region. Persians born under Arab rule grew up practicing Islam, and those who became clergy passed it to subsequent generations—even as successive Persian, Turkish, and Mongolian invaders ruled the country. Islam became the de facto religion for Iran and remains so to this day.

The Iranian Revolution

Persepolis begins in the days immediately following the Iranian Revolution of 1978–79. Also known as the Islamic Revolution or the 1979 Revolution, the Iranian Revolution was the climax of the public's rising discontent with the Iranian monarchy throughout the 1970s. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the shah, or king, of Iran, was disliked by conservatives and liberals alike. He and his government were accused of repressing political opposition, hoarding revenues from oil exports, and forcing people to adopt Western technologies, ideas, and values. Progressives, such as Marjane's parents, Ebi and Taji, were angered by the monarchy's suppression of contradictory political voices through censorship, surveillance, arrest, torture, and execution. Conservatives, on the other hand, wanted to banish Western influence from Iran and institute Islamic law.

The revolution began in January 1978 when a newspaper article about Islamic scholar Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–89) incited students in a Tehran religious school. Khomeini, an outspoken opponent of the monarchy, had been exiled in 1964 and was then living in Iraq. More young people followed suit to protest the monarchy's lavish way of life. The shah didn't know how to react. When he chose to fight back, the regime's soldiers killed protesters—who were then regarded as martyrs, or people who died for their religion. Civilian protests and government retaliation became an ongoing cycle, while Khomeini sent recorded messages to his supporters advocating for the shah to relinquish the throne.

In January 1979 the shah and his family left Iran—supposedly on vacation. They never returned. Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar (1914–91) tried to gain control of the government but couldn't reach an agreement with either the progressives or the conservatives. That left an opening for Khomeini, who returned to Iran on February 1, 1979. He was welcomed with open arms by a public ready for change. Some progressives, such as Marjane's father, Ebi, were worried about the implications of putting someone with such stringent religious beliefs in power. Others—such as Marjane's Uncle Anoosh—believed religious leaders would take a step back and allow the people to form their own government. Ebi was closer to the mark. Iran became an Islamic republic, or a country ruled by Islamic law, on April 1, 1979.

Government officials not associated with Islamic fundamentalism, whose believers argue that the world's problems are caused by nonreligious people, were immediately removed from office. Laws guaranteeing marriage rights for women were rescinded, and conservative standards for dress and behavior were enforced as law. Women had to cover their hair when in public with a hijab, or veil. Adult women also had to wear a chador, or billowing gown, to conceal the shapes of their bodies from men's eyes. The sexes were segregated in nearly all aspects of public life, including religious services, at schools, and on buses and trains. Unmarried men and women were not allowed to be in public together, and casual dating was not allowed. The violation of these laws was not taken lightly, and it seemed as if there were eyes everywhere. Bands of government-sanctioned patrols roamed the cities looking for the tiniest infractions, which could lead to arrest, violence, or even death. The regime's rules and a constant fear of the religious law-enforcement patrols are reasons Marjane felt stifled living in Iran's Islamic Republic.

Iran-Iraq War

The Iran-Iraq war began on September 22, 1980, when Iraqi military forces invaded Iran, though Iraqi leaders maintain it started weeks before when Iranian troops shelled Iraqi posts along the border. Iraq aimed to control the Shatt Al-'Arab, a river that runs between the two countries, and the border region Khuzestan, which produces a lot of oil and has a heavy ethnic Arab population. Iraq also sought reassurance that President Saddam Hussein would not be overthrown by fundamentalist revolutionaries as had happened in Iran. Hussein was concerned Khomeini would make a play for Iraq as well.

Iran was already in political chaos with the changing of regimes, and the 1979 hostage crisis at the United States embassy in Tehran hadn't endeared the Iranians to the West. Iraq had the financial support of the Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as the tacit support of the United States and the Soviet Union, who were deeply concerned about Iraq's oil supply. Iran, on the other hand, was backed only by Syria and Libya. Iranian citizens were understandably panicked, which is why the grocery stores are completely empty when Marjane and her mother go shopping in Persepolis. There were also periods of fuel shortages, as Iran and Iraq kept bombing each other's oil fields.

As Satrapi notes in the chapter "The Cigarette," Iraq tried to end the war in 1982. It gave back the land it had claimed and tried to negotiate a peace agreement. The Islamic regime wasn't interested. Khomeini, who was now the leader of Iran, wanted to overthrow Hussein. He and other government leaders knew they needed the war to stay in power. As long as Iranians were united against Iraq, they wouldn't have the manpower or strength to rebel against their own government.

Iran finally agreed to a cease-fire in August 1988. Experts estimate one to two million people were wounded or killed during the war, with Iran suffering the most losses. As Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Iran and Iraq came to a formal peace settlement, and Iraqi troops were finally removed from Iran.

Autobiographical Comics and Satrapi's Style

Comic books have been around for over a century, but it wasn't until the mid-1980s that people began viewing them as a medium for sophisticated literature. American writer Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), American writer Art Spiegelman's Maus (1987), and English writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons's Watchmen series (1986–87) differed from traditional comic book fare. Dark and often gritty, they used multidimensional characters to explore serious themes. They were also long, which earned them the moniker "graphic novel."

Satrapi doesn't consider herself a comic artist, and she admits her Iranian art school education wasn't an enormous help when it comes to drawing people. At school female models had to wear the shapeless clothing required by the Islamic regime, and female art students weren't exactly encouraged to study the male models. Her illustration style is bold and somewhat rudimentary-looking. Rendered completely in black and white, her drawings are reminiscent of woodcut artwork, which rose to prominence in 16th-century Germany. Satrapi's simple images pack a big punch, and they allow readers to immediately identify what is happening on the page and what the characters are feeling. They also help bridge the cultural divide between the Iranian characters and Satrapi's Western readership. Anyone from anywhere can see themselves in the nondescript features of her main characters.

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