Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood Summary and Analysis of "The Cigarette," "The Passport," and "Kim Wilde"


The Cigarette

Two years pass and the war continues. Everyday there are reports on the national news that Iran is winning the war, but Marjane knows this is a lie. She tells her older friends that not even the Americans have an army as large as the Iraqi one that has supposedly already been destroyed by Iran. When the bell rings for class, Marjane’s friends tell her that they are going to get a burger at “Kansas.”

Kansas is a burger joint in one of the nice neighborhoods in North Tehran. The regime had not shut it down and Marjane thinks that this is probably due to their ignorance. In the burger joint, they flirt with two teenage boys with cool haircuts. Marjane says, “In spite of everything, kids were trying to look hip, even under risk of arrest.” Back on the street, a siren sounds and the boys dive into a gutter because that is what they have been taught to do. The girls laugh at the boys and call them “chicken.”

After Marjane returns home, her mother chastises her for skipping class. Her mother tells her that she must “know everything better than anyone else if you’re going to survive!!” Marjane calls her mother the “Dictator...the Guardian of the Revolution of this house!” At dinner, they hear the announcement that Iran has taken Khorramshahr, a strategic Iraqi city, but Mrs. Satrapi does not believe the news. Marjane asks her mother if she can go to the basement, her hideaway.

It turns out that the news is true. Iraq offers a peace settlement and Saudi Arabia offers to pay for reconstruction, but the Iranian government turns down the offer. They declare that they will conquer Karbala, an Iraqi holy city. The country plunges deeper into war. There are “belligerent slogans” painted on the walls of the city, one of which causes Marjane to think of a graphic image of a dead man: “To die a martyr is to inject blood into the veins of society.” Marjane reflects that the regime depends on the war to retain its political control of the country. A million people lose their lives in the war. The regime becomes more repressive and seeks to stop “the enemy within” by arresting and executing those that defy its rule.

In the basement, Marjane takes out a cigarette that she had stolen from her uncle. Just as the people of Iran participate in small acts of rebellion against their government, Marjane declares that smoking the cigarette is a rebellion against her mother. She lights it and coughs but decides not to give in and to continue smoking. In that moment, she says that she moves from childhood to adulthood.

The Passport

It is July of 1982. The family visits Marjane’s uncle. He smokes a cigarette, though his wife scolds him for it. He has had a heart attack and can no longer smoke, but he cries, “The stress I get from every gunshot I hear is much worse for me than the cigarettes.” He is stressed that his oldest son is in Holland but that he and his wife cannot join him. He recalls horror stories that he hears of young people being executed in the streets by the regime.

A few days later the family discusses her Uncle Taher’s situation. Marjane’s mother worries about his son, stuck in a foreign country where he does not even speak the language. Marjane interjects that once they grow up children do not need parents. Rather, parents need their children. Her mother and father think that she is quite a stubborn girl, but her father says that her stubbornness will help her later in life. Marjane’s mother and father share a tender moment, but the phone rings and interrupts them.

They learn that Uncle Taher has had a third heart attack and they rush to the hospital. At the hospital, the family encounters the war wounded. They walk past several men that have lost their legs and other men lying on stretchers in the hallways. When they reach Uncle Taher’s room, Marjane’s aunt tells them that he had the heart attack after a grenade went off in the neighborhood -- the regime had been trying to kill a group of communists. The doctors tell Marjane’s aunt that Uncle Taher needs open-heart surgery and that he must go to England for the surgery.

Marjane’s aunt goes to the director of the hospital to ask for a passport for her husband to go to England. She is surprised to learn that the director of the hospital is her former window washer. He has been made director of the hospital because of his extreme religious zealotry. The director tells her that “if God wills it,” Taher will receive the passport. She is furious that “the fate of my husband depends on a window washer!” She appeals to the chief physician but he tells her the hospital is overwhelmed with those wounded by chemical warfare. He tells them that the Germans sell Iraq and Iran chemical weapons and then the wounded are shipped to Germany to be experimented on by German doctors.

Marjane and her father leave the hospital and visit his friend Khosro. Khosro had been in prison with Anoosh and now makes fake passports. He is harboring a young eighteen-year-old girl who is accused of being a communist. Khosro agrees to make the fake passport but before he is able to, the young girl he harbors is arrested and executed by being blindfolded and shot while standing against a wall. Khosro flees over the mountains to Turkey where he is granted asylum to live in Sweden with his brother. At the hospital, Taher wakes up and tells the family that his final wish is to see his son once more. Three weeks later, he dies. On the same day, his real passport arrives. He is never able to see his son.

Kim Wilde

A year after her Uncle Taher dies, Iran reopens its borders. The entire family rushes to get passports. Marjane wants the family to take a vacation but her parents tell her that they want a vacation alone. They tell her that they are going to Turkey. They promise to bring her back Western things, such as posters of Kim Wilde and Iron Maiden. Marjane’s father declares that he really likes Iron Maiden and the women of the family cannot believe it.

In Turkey, the Satrapis go to a record store and buy the posters. They then must think of ways to get the posters back through customs. None of the ideas they think of seem feasible. Marjane’s mother then has the bright idea of sewing the posters into a big coat that Mr. Satrapi then wears. He feels ridiculous in the big coat, but when they get to customs, they assure the agent there that they have nothing illegal and the agent lets them pass.

When they get back to the house, Marjane’s mother begins passing out the presents they had brought her. They give her a denim jacket, a Michael Jackson button, and a pair of Nike sneakers. They then pull the posters out of the coat and Marjane is elated. She says, “I loved Turkey.”

She puts the posters in her room, wears the sneakers and the jacket, and plays air guitar just like Iron Maiden. She tells her mother that she is going out, just down the street, and thinks that her mother is more permissive than most other mothers who would not let their daughters go out alone at such a young age. Marjane goes to the corner and buys several tapes from men selling Western goods on the black market. She is being sneaky about it until a group of women stops her. They are members of the women’s branch of the Guardians of the Revolution. They interrogate her on her Western dress. They ask her why she is wearing punk sneakers, and Marji secretly thinks they know nothing of what punk really is. They chastise her for wearing a Michael Jackson button and she tries to tell them it is a Malcolm X button because “Back then, Michael Jackson was still black.” They pull her scarf over her head and threaten to drag her to the committee, the “HQ of the Guardians of the Revolution.” Marjane lies and tells them that her mother is dead and that her stepmother is very cruel and will burn her with an iron or send her to an orphanage if she does not go home. The women believe her, or pretend to, and let her go. Back at home, she does not tell her mother what has happened and goes to her room and plays her new tapes very loudly. She sings along with the lyrics: “We’re the kids of America....”


“The Cigarette,” “The Passport,” and “Kim Wilde” are three chapters that explore issues of Western cultural influence in a country whose regime seeks to ban all such influence. Marjane, like any other teenager, begins to grow up and rebel against her parents and her culture. Her rebellion takes the form of an increased awareness of and engagement with Western culture -- its food, dress, music, and style. Her rebellion, however, carries the threat of severe consequences.

The burger joint that Marjane and her friends sneak off to is named “Kansas.” It is meant to symbolize a Western sense of normalcy - girls flirt with boys and teenagers can be teenagers without the threat of punishment or persecution. The Western reader might also be reminded of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” who sought out her normal, real life in Kansas after being thrown into the fantasy world of Oz. The bombings that begin down the street and that cause the boys in the restaurant to throw themselves in the gutter remind the reader that, like Dorothy, Marjane is not in Kansas anymore. Satrapi means here to compare the war torn fundamentalist country to a kind of fantasy -- a land that is out of time and space when compared to Western reality. In Marjane’s mind, Kansas, the Western style burger joint, is reality; the war outside is a horrific, unreal fantasy world.

The end of “The Cigarette” can be seen as the novel’s climactic point. This chapter offers some of the novel’s most gripping visualizations. As Marjane walks down a dark staircase, her descent is juxtaposed against images of the Iran-Iraq War, the way in which the regime refused peace in order to keep control of the country through war, and the powerful ideal of martyrdom. Just as Marjane descends into the dark basement, so too does her country descend into its darkest time.

In the basement, Marjane makes her boldest statement of rebellion by smoking a cigarette that she had stolen from her uncle. She equates the smoking of the cigarette as a small act of rebellion against her mother. It is rebellion in the same way that the people of Iran are able to hold small acts of rebellion against their leaders, such as playing cards or not fully shaving their beards or showing their hair. These rebellious acts underlie a tacit understanding that neither Marjane nor the Iranian people are truly free, yet these acts are also an expression of agency. It is in the darkest hour that both Marjane and her country find means to declare a small bit of independence.

“The Passport,” however, is a rebuttal to Marjane’s act of independence. The reader is introduced to her Uncle Taher who is literally dying from both the cigarettes that he smokes and the stress of war going on all around him. Taher had sent his son away to Europe in order to escape the persecution of the Islamic regime. The strain of this situation, however, is slowly killing him. Taher’s own act of rebellion against the regime and against his country eventually costs him his life when he is unable to obtain a passport to leave Iran and seek medical care. Freedom as it is represented by the cigarette, Satrapi suggests, does not come without a price. A cigarette becomes the symbol of freedom but also a path of destruction.