Many may recognise Persepolis - literally “City of the Persians” - as a famous historical Iranian city located in the Fars Provence; however, it is also the name of the deeply moving and hauntingly contemporary graphic novel - originally written in French - by Marjane Satrapi.
Satrapi's novel aims to honour the richness of Iranian civilisation on the basis that “an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists”. She documents some of the fundamental political events which have shaped the country’s current theocratic republic from the flight of the Shah in 1979, to the rise of an Islamic fundamentalist regime during the Iran-Iraq war; her powerful story is told through the eyes of a young, headstrong, and fiercely free-thinking female narrator.
Reading this graphic novel in 2020, I will argue, provides us with some uncanny and prescient historical parallels as well as offering an interesting lens through which to understand contemporary political decisions.
The narrator begins as a young child and, in many ways, the shifting historical climate metamorphoses in perfect symbiosis with her touching coming of age story. 'Marji' is fascinated by her country’s changing political landscape and the foreign intervention that contributes to its volatility: the frames portraying the Shah’s escape (reproduced above) convey President Jimmy Carter’s refusal to accept the Shah into the USA as “all that interests him is oil”.
Marji is shocked by this conclusion and she is confused by her father’s subsequent accusations of betrayal at various partnerships with Israel. However, it is the following frame which particularly struck me for he predicts, with telling accuracy and world-weariness, that “we will never have peace in the Middle East” as long as “there is oil”.
In light of recent events, we might conclude that Satrapi’s proleptic pronouncement was, sadly, quite accurate. Long-term tensions have existed between the Iranian and American governments ever since the latter’s aid towards Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Ultimately, the conflict benefited neither of the two countries but arguably shored up the US’s material interests in the Middle East, particularly in terms of privatising oil fields and stabilising this global economy.
But to what end? It is true that Iraq was guaranteed as an oil exporter, but maintaining Hussein’s authoritarian regime resulted in drastic humanitarian and social consequences for the Iraqi population. Moreover, these events fuelled long-term hostility between Iran and the USA until the present day, compromising the safety of many innocent individuals. An example of such a tragedy is the shooting down of the Iran Air flight in 1988 which killed 290 people.
The current President of the United States has attracted controversy with his comments about Iran, including in his often-preferred medium for communication: Twitter.
A clear parallel can be drawn with the latest conflict between the two countries: President Trump’s actions seminated fresh distrust and animosity. And we see political figures, such as the US Democrat Chris Murphy, arguing that the “same people cheering on Trump’s escalation to war were the same ones telling us that democracy would boom across the Middle East once our cake walk invasion of Iraq was done…They were wrong then. They are wrong now”.
Even though this conflict has consolidated the US’s political power and military prowess in the Middle East (as demonstrated by President Trump’s impulsive threats), the question we ask (and which Persepolis also asks) is: should international peace and the livelihood of an entire population be compromised for a power game? Some clearly believe so, for Iran’s economy has now been forced into recession and many of its sources of revenue blocked.
Through her nuanced interplay of words and images, Satrapi portrays the trauma and hopelessness of war. We have, over time, become accustomed and desensitised to images of conflict and its consequences by thriving media outlets, yet this new perspective forces us to return again and again to the key ethical question about whether the results of confrontations of power are worth the distress and destruction of so many.