The book’s introduction begins with a brief history of the nation of Iran. Iran is first given the name “Ayryana Vaejo,” which means “the origin of the Aryans,” by semi-nomadic Indo-European invaders who come to the land in the second millennium B.C. Iran remains a land of nomadic peoples until the seventh century B.C. when the Medes establish Iran as a nation. Cyrus the Great destroys the nation soon after and he incorporates it into “one of the largest empires of the ancient world, the Persian Empire....” From the sixth century B.C. until the twentieth century A.D., the name of this empire is Persia. The Persian Empire is often attacked by foreign invaders because of its wealth, but the culture of Persia remains intact.
In the twentieth century, Reza Shah renames this Persian territory Iran. He seeks to modernize Iran and engages the country with Western civilization. Oil is also been discovered in Iran which brings “another invasion.” Iran remains a neutral zone during World War II, and so the allied powers invade and occupy the country. They send Reza Shah into exile. He is succeeded by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, “known simply as the Shah.” In 1951, a new ruler, Mohammed Mossadeq, institutes a number of reforms and takes back national control of the oil industry. The United States and Great Britain help to organize a coup against Mossadeq and he is taken out of power. The Shah returns to Iran and rules until 1979 and the Islamic Revolution.
Satrapi notes that since 1979, Iran has largely been discussed “in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism.” She says that as a person who has lived half her life in Iran, she knows that this characterization is not true. This, she says, is why she wrote Persepolis. She believes “that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists.”
Persepolis begins with a school picture of Marjane in 1980. She is ten years old and wearing a veil. In the picture, she is with a group of other girls, all with dour faces. She is on the far left of the picture and is partly left out of the frame so that she is only partially visible. She says that in 1980, it becomes obligatory for girls to wear the veil at school. The girls do not like this and do not understand why they have to wear it. They complain that it is too hot and some take them off and play with them, jumping rope and throwing them away. Other children playfully mimic scenes from the Revolution.
This requirement of veils is a shock to the children. Before 1979, Marjane had attended a French non-religious school where boys and girls had studied together. In 1979, the revolutionaries call for a “Cultural Revolution” in which bilingual schools should be closed because “They are symbols of capitalism.” The people are depicted as agreeing with this idea and so the children are divided between sexes.
There are demonstrations both for and against the strictures of the Cultural Revolution. During one of the demonstrations, a picture is taken of the author’s mother. She is angry and looks rebellious and her picture is published in European newspapers. It is also published in a magazine in Iran and this is a scary thing. Marjane’s mother dyes her hair and wears dark glasses to avoid persecution by the revolutionaries.
Marjane says that she does not really know how to feel about the veil. Her family is “very modern and avant-garde.” She tells of how she had been “born with religion,” and as a very young child, she had believed that she would be “the last prophet.” There are drawings of some of the earlier prophets and in Marjane’s vision, these prophets question whether a woman can also be a prophet. She says that she had wanted to be a prophet “because our maid did not eat with us. Because my father had a Cadillac. And, above all, because my grandmother’s knees always ached.” She has a holy book as well in which she imitates the rules of the first great prophet of her country, Zarathustra, who had proclaimed that everything in life must be based on the commands to “Behave well, Speak well, Act well.” Her grandmother is the only person that knows of her holy book and her rules that all should have cars, that maids should eat with others, and that “no old person should have to suffer.” When her grandmother questions her on how she will make it so that no old person will suffer, she says, “It will simply be forbidden.”
She has conversations about her future as a prophet with an imaginary friend that looks like God, an old man with a white flowing beard. She begs for more time, but God tells her that she is ready. She announces in school one day that she is going to be a prophet when she grows up. Other children laugh at her and her teacher calls her parents in to the school to discuss this. Her parents defend her to the teacher. As they are walking home, they ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. To herself, she thinks that she will be a prophet, but she tells them that she wants to be a doctor. That night she feels guilty in front of God. God is confused at her choice to be a doctor, but she tells him that she will be a prophet but that no one can know. In an imaginary vision, she holds a scale of justice, makes a sign of love, and holds a sword and shield and declares that she wants “to be justice, love, and the wrath of God all in one.”
Marjane begins by saying that her faith "was not unshakable." As the revolution begins, she and a few friends play in the yard and pretend to be great revolutionaries -- Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Leon Trotsky. Sitting under a tree, the author tells her friends, "The Revolution is like a bicycle. When the wheels don't turn, it falls." This, she says, is the Revolution in Iran.
Over the course of 2,500 years, Iran has been occupied by many invading forces. First, the nation had its own emperors. Then there was an Arab invasion from the West, which had been followed by a Mongolian invasion from the East. In the modern era, the invasion has come from "Modern Imperialism," represented by the image of several historical characters including Britain and America. She knows all of this because her parents bought her many books. She knows about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about Communism in Cuba, the American conflict in Vietnam, and about famous Iranian revolutionaries like Frezai, Fatemi, and Ashraf.
Her favorite book, however, is a comic book entitled "Dialectic Materialism." In the book, there are captions of Marx and Descartes conversing. Descartes tells Marx that the material world only exists in the imagination. Marx takes a stone, asks Descartes if it only exists in his imagination, and then hits Descartes over the head to prove that it is real. The author notes that, in the book and in her visions, God and Marx look very similar, since they both have long white beards. God still comes to visit her sometimes. He asks her if she still wants to be a prophet and she tells God to talk about something else. He changes the subject and tells her the weather will be nice the next day.
She hears her parents talking in the next room and sneaks up to their door in order to hear their conversation. They are talking about how "They burned down the Rex Cinema..." The Rex is a theater that shows modern movies. The poster on the matinee depicts a scene from a crime thriller. The doors to the theater are locked and police stand guard outside, preventing anyone from rescuing those inside. The police loom large over the people, and soon they attack those outside. Firemen do not arrive until much later to extinguish the blaze. According to the news, 400 people die in the fire. The people know that the Shah had ordered the theater be burned to the ground, but the Shah blames a group of religious fanatics. In a large half-page frame, the ghosts of those trapped in the theater fly towards the exit, engulfed in flames. Marjane's father tells her mother that there will be demonstrations the next day.
Outside her parents’ bedroom, she tells God that she wants to go to the demonstrations. She tries on several different hats in a mirror saying that she will go to the demonstration as Che Guevara or maybe Fidel Castro. As she looks at herself in the mirror, God quietly walks out of her bedroom. She looks for him when she realizes he has left. Not finding him, she storms down to her parents’ bedroom and demands that they take her with them to the demonstration the next day saying, "For a revolution to succeed, the entire population must support it." Her parents tell her that it is dangerous and that she can participate later on. Her father takes her to bed as she begs to be a part of the demonstrations. Lying in bed, crying, she cries out for God but "that night he didn't come."
Persepolis is the story of Marjane Satrapi’s childhood in Iran. Much of the book centers on the author’s family during the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. Broadly, the book can be considered a memoir. The story is a personal reflection on Satrapi’s own life but sheds light on a wider historical period. Satrapi is the protagonist throughout the novel. If combined with the novel’s sequel, Persepolis 2, which describes Marjane’s early adulthood, the novel can be considered the first part of a Bildungsroman. A Bildungsroman is a novel that follows a specific course in which the author moves from childhood to adulthood, is forced to leave home because of a tragedy or tragic circumstance, and undergoes a process of self-actualization characterized as a conflict between the protagonist and the cultural order.
The title of the book alludes to the ancient capital of Persia, Persepolis. At a deeper level, it alludes to a theme of tension between past and present. Persepolis had been a great historical city of Persia and now holds the burial grounds for many Persian kings. Persepolis represents a flourishing of culture. The purpose of the novel, as the author says, is partly to contrast this previous great culture with a culture of intolerance and fundamentalism found in modern day Iran. The title also alludes to the fact that within its fundamentalist exterior, a great Iranian culture and people still exist, one that the Western world is not often allowed to see.
The novel’s introduction gives a very general history of Iran from its ancient founding to its modern political turbulence. This is given more detail in “The Bicycle.” This introduction is meant to give context to the book’s more personal history while “The Bicycle” represents a personal reflection on a history of revolution, invasion, and ideas. The novel can be understood as a form of “lived history,” a narrative that gives privilege to the understanding and interpretation of those that lived through historical events. Persepolis is valuable in the way that it creates an interpretive lens of childhood from which to view the historical circumstances of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War.
The opening pages of the narrative are a reflection on the search for identity. Like the graphic representation of her life, Marjane’s childhood is very black and white. She understands right and wrong and seeks to proclaim justice. Satrapi uses personification to create a God character as a child might imagine it. This reflection on childhood, however, is also a reflection on partial identity. The opening frames of the novel depict a group of girls, covered in veils. Marjane tells the reader that she is only partially in the picture. This represents the author’s own search for identity. Her identity is fractured both because of her childish understanding of the world and because of the religious fundamentalism being imposed on the country by the Islamic rulers. The novel, thus, is her attempt to recount and reclaim her own personal identity as a person and as an Iranian.
The opening chapter also sets up one of the central conflicts of the novel -- the conflict between the Satrapi’s “avant garde” life and their loyalty to Iran, its culture, and its people. The Satrapi’s life is a study in contradictions and inconsistencies. They have benefited from the Shah’s westernization of Iranian culture yet they demonstrate against his rule. They fight for the poor and working class people while also holding on to their privileged class distinctions. Marjane strongly identifies herself in a prophetic religious heritage and says that she was born with religion, yet her family is secular. Their faith is not in religion but in political ideology. This tension will be played out throughout the novel.