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Creativity Trumps Repression

A new landmark in comics form memoir

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Marjane Satrapi grew up in Tehran and witnessed firsthand the murderous repression of the Shah, his successful overthrow, his eventual replacement by the ayatollahs who stole the revolution right out from under the noses of their leftist "allies," the confined life demanded by strict Islamic law, and the fierce eight-year war with Iraq (back when Saddam had a big, bad, US-funded army). Her extraordinary memoir in comics form, Persepolis, tells the story of her childhood, lived against the backdrop of the wrenching changes of Iranian history. The book, which was recently published in an American edition, has garnered bestseller status and awards in Europe while attracting the inevitable comparisons to Art Spiegelman's groundbreaking Maus. The American edition contains the first two volumes of the four-part series, drawn in a fairly simple but dynamic and surprisingly moving style that allows Satrapi to convey an array of emotions -- including the kind of stunned fury and sadness that gradually overtake most of the secular Iranians depicted.

Satrapi grew up in a family of leftie intellectuals who suffered under the Shah and gladly worked for his overthrow, only to see their fellow rebels kicked out or killed by Khomeini's thugs. Once the ayatollahs take over, the book enters, just as the author's life did, an alien world of repression in which lives are lost -- or at least bones are broken -- over the requirement that women wear "The Veil"; Western culture is demonized and forbidden; men are tortured for flirting with women; and boys are sent to the front to fight Iraqi troops, armed with cardboard, gold-painted "keys to heaven."

Persepolis isn't all grim, however; Satrapi places the political horror stories within the context of her life with family and friends, which provides generous doses of humanity, as well as humor in unexpected places. For instance, at one point Marjane, at age 13, tells a meddling morals cop that the Michael Jackson button she's wearing is actually a picture of Malcolm X; the Muslim connection, needless to say, gets her off the hook.

What comes across very strongly in Satrapi's wonderful book is the realization that there's not a dime's worth of difference between a political system run by Islamic fundamentalists and any other modern totalitarian state. Either way, it's a horror show. What troubles this writer is remembering the axiom that countries often come to resemble the enemies they fight. We can only hope that Satrapi's recent experience at JFK Airport, as reported in the New York Times, isn't an omen. When she presented her Iranian passport, she was fingerprinted and interrogated by an American immigration official who demanded to know why she called her native land "EE-rahn" rather than "EYE-ran," and wouldn't let her go until she had pronounced it the way we do in the good ole USA.

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