Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Sectional summary

Persepolis 1: The Story of a Childhood

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Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis 1: The Story of the Childhood (p. 143)

The graphic novel begins with an introduction to the life of a ten year old - Marji - in 1980, the year after the Islamic Revolution. Satrapi focuses on a child’s view of the Islamic Revolution, a time when girls were obliged to wear the veil, schools were segregated by gender (whereas Marji previously attended a co-ed school), and secular education was abolished. In school, Marji learns about revolutions and socialism while observing oppression by the Shah in her daily life. Her anti-authoritarian/patriarchy attitude is inspired by her favorite comic book “Dialectic Materialism.”

Marji uncovers her family background. In 1925, Reza Shah, the father of the current king, was influenced and supported by the British to organize a coup d’état to overthrow the Qajar emperor, who happens to be Marji's great-grandfather. The Shah confiscated everything belonging to her grandfather’s family and her Western-educated grandfather was appointed as prime minister, but was imprisoned after his turn to communism. Marji vows to read everything she can to better understand the Revolution.

Through her research, Marji reads a work by Ali Ashraf Darvishian - a Kurdish author - illuminating the class structures in her society. This prompts Marji to reflect on her own home, specifically with her nursemaid Mehri and of Mehri’s failed past love, which father explains "impossible” since one must stay in one’s own social class. Marji sees this as unjust and convinces Mehri to attend anti-Shah demonstrations with her on Black Friday. They are unhurt, but the Black Friday massacre was the beginning of an extended period of violence, leading to the decline and exile of the Shah in Egypt. The celebration of his exile prompts Marji to become more aware of politics and human fickleness, as she observes former supporters of the Shah now touting pro-revolution propaganda.

On March 1979, 3,000 political prisoners were released. The end of the Revolution brought about an end to her interest in “Dialectical Materialism” comics and Marji seeks solace in her faith. Her uncle, Anoosh, visits and recounts how he was imprisoned for nine years as a communist revolutionary and hero. As he re-tells his story, he states that Marji’s grandfather was loyal to the shah, but him and his uncle Fereydoon were devoted to ideals of justice and democracy. They attempted to bring about independence from the shah; however, he was later imprisoned. He encourages Marji to remember his story, even if she has difficulty understanding it, because it is their “family memory” and it must not be lost. Marji’s family soon discovers that their communist-revolutionary friends who had just been released from prison are either dead or fled, and Anoosh is arrested and executed as a Russian spy. These events leave Marji feeling lost and she rejects her faith. Bombs begin to fall on Iran. As fundamentalist students were reported taking over the U.S. embassy, Marji’s family observes their neighbors once again changing their behavior to suit the new regime. Her family goes on an abrupt vacation for three weeks to Spain and Italy, only to return home to the announcement of war with Iraq - the second Arab invasion in 1400 years. Marji’s father is doubtful of Iran’s ability to defend itself since all pilots of the fighter jets were either jailed or executed after a failed coup d’état and is disillusioned with the Islamic-Fundamentalist government, an attitude that Marji interprets as defeatist and unpatriotic.

Although the Iraqi army had more modern weaponry, Iran had a greater number of young soldiers. Marji notices the number of ‘martyrs’ reported in the daily news and the twice-daily funeral marches with self-flagellation sessions at her school. After the border towns, Tehran itself became a target, and the basement of Marji’s building was turned into a bomb shelter. Having weekly parties or card games with wine expertly and secretly made by Marji’s uncle was their only way to alleviate the stress of their new lives and a way to privately revolt against the new regime.

After two years of war, at age twelve (1982), Marji is very astute and begins to explore her rebellious side by skipping classes and obsessing over boys. Iranian army has successfully pushed the Iraqi army back to the borders; however the war did not end. The fundamentalist regime uses war as an excuse to exterminate all internal enemies and became more oppressive.

Marji’s parents go on a holiday to Turkey once the borders are reopened in 1983 and smuggle banned gifts back to Iran for her. Marji ventures out to connect with the black market that has grown around the shortages caused by war and repression. She is stopped by members of the new woman’s branch of the Guardians of the Revolution who are unimpressed with her new ‘symbols of decadence’ - improperly worn head scarf and too-tight jeans - and threaten to bring her in front of their HQ committee where she would likely be physically punished or detained without consent.

One fatal Saturday, Marji rushes home when she discovers a long-range ballistic missile has hit her street. After succumbing to her own sadness and trauma after the personal discovery of her friend’s body, Marji is suddenly overcome with rage. At age fourteen, Marji becomes a fearless rebel and is expelled from school after punching the principal. Her mother is gripped with fear by her rebelliousness, explaining that she risks execution. To circumvent the law against killing a virgin, a Guardian of the Revolution will marry a condemned young woman, forcibly take her virginity, execute her, then send a meagre dowry and message to her family. Her family decides to send her to Austria to attend French school. Her parents send her off at the airport, and when Marji looks behind her before boarding the plane she sees her mother has fainted.

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return

When Marji arrives in Vienna, she leaves Zozo’s home and starts her new life at a boarding house run by nuns. There, she goes shopping by herself for the first time and enjoys her newfound freedom. When she returns, she meets her roommate, Lucia. Lucia speaks German, but they quickly learn to communicate by drawing pictures. The section ends with both girls watching a movie in the TV room.

Marji starts to become popular at school after she gets the highest grade on a math test and her unflattering portraits of teachers spark new friendships. She and her new friends talk about what they will do over Christmas break, which makes Marji feel left out because she doesn't celebrate Christmas, but rather the Iranian New Year, which isn't until March. After expressing her sadness to Lucia, Lucia offers to take her home to meet her parents over the holiday. Marji agrees and ends up going to evening mass and having dinner with them.

The next break, Marji listens to her friends' plans and comes up with her own excuse for what she is going to do: read. She spends her break reading and eating pasta. One evening she makes a big potful of spaghetti and goes down to eat it in the public TV room at her boarding house. One of the nuns criticizes her manners and insults her for being an uneducated Iranian. Marji bites back, which gets her kicked out of the boarding house. She says goodbye to Lucia and leaves to stay with her friend Julie and her mother.

Marji starts living with Julie and is disturbed by how disrespectful she is to her mother, whom Marji respects. Marji and Julie have a talk before bed, and Julie tells Marji about her sexual endeavors. Marji is shocked because sexual topics were very taboo in Iran. Julie's mother goes on a business trip and Julie has a party, but it is not what Marji expects. Instead of eating and dancing, people are lying around and smoking. Later that night, Marji is appalled upon hearing that Julie and her boyfriend are having sex. Marji would later call this her first step towards assimilating into Western culture.

Marji discusses her changing physical appearance. She starts cutting her own hair, and even sells haircuts to the hall monitors at her school. Marji’s friends, who think the hall monitors are conformists, are displeased. Her friends begin to use drugs and she only pretends to participate. She begins to feel like she is betraying her Iranian heritage. Finally, she overhears some people in a café talking about how she has made up her past, and defends herself, which makes her feel as if she has redeemed herself.

Julie leaves Vienna and Marji moves to a communal apartment with eight homosexual men. Her mother surprises her by calling to say she is coming to visit, and arrives soon after. Marji spends time with her mother and, because the apartment is only hers for a limited amount of time, finds a new place to stay – a room in the house of Frau Dr. Heller.

Marji starts having problems with Frau Dr. Heller’s unstable attitude and untidy dog. Marji's boyfriend Enrique invites her to a party, and she unexpectedly has fun. She meets Enrique's friend, Ingrid, and she assumes that Enrique is in love with Ingrid when she does not wake up next to him in the morning. However, later that day, Enrique reveals to Marji that he is gay. Marji is confused, and has a long talk with her physics teacher. She decides that she wants a physical relationship, and, after failing miserably with the boy she likes, turns to drugs. She soon meets Markus, a student at her school, and falls in love with him, but neither Markus's mother nor Frau Dr. Heller approve of their relationship. Marji procures some drugs for Markus, and gains a reputation as a drug dealer; Marji feels ashamed.

Marji is having trouble on her exams, so she calls and asks her mother to pray for her. In need of money, she ends up getting a job at a cafe and befriends the elderly cook. When the school year starts, the principal subtly chastises her for drug dealing. She stops, but ends up taking more of them herself – so many that her boyfriend Markus gets fed up and it begins affecting her health. She gets involved with some of Markus' friends and protests the new Austrian president, Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi. Marji prepares to go away to spend her birthday with a friend and is distressed by Markus's nonchalant reaction. When she ends up missing her train, she goes to Markus's house, only to discover that he is cheating on her.

Marji falls apart after her breakup with Markus. When she is accused of stealing Frau Dr. Heller's brooch, she decides to leave, spending the day on a park bench, where she reflects upon how cruel Markus was to her. She discovers that she has nowhere to go and ends up having to live on the street for over two months. During this time, she contracts severe bronchitis and ends up in the hospital. When she recovers, she remembers her mother telling her that a friend in Vienna owes her some money. She goes to pick it up, and discovers that her parents have been desperately trying to contact her for the two months she spent on the streets. She arranges with her parents to go back to Iran.

After living in Vienna for 4 years, Marji finally returns to Tehran. She can feel the oppression in the air, now more so than ever. At the airport, she recognizes her parents instantly, observing that the war has aged them. Marji has changed so much, her parents don't even recognize her until she approaches them herself. The next morning, she takes notice of the things around her room that were remnants of her younger "punk" years. She sponges off a punk she had drawn on her wall as a symbolic move into the future. Donning her veil once more to go out, she takes in the 65-foot murals of martyrs, rebel slogans, and the streets renamed after the dead. At home, her father tells Marji the horrors of the war and they talk deep into the night. After hearing what her parents had gone through while she was away in Vienna, she resolves never to tell them of her time there.

Despite her opposition, Marji’s entire family and later, her friends, come to visit. Marji feels awkward because all her friends "looked like American TV heroines.” A few days later, she tells her Mom the only friend she would like to see is Kia, whom she discovers was required to do military service and is now disabled. Marji relieved that he still sounds normal of the phone, but is taken aback when she sees him in a wheelchair. At his home, Kia tells Marji the story of an injured veteran with an unfortunate ending, yet Kia makes a joke and they share a long laugh about it.

Marji falls into a depression. Her friends suggest a ski trip, which Marji reluctantly accepts. She is criticized for admitting that she has had multiple sexual experiences and returns home even more depressed. She decides to visit a therapist, but is still unsatisfied, visiting two more until the last one simply puts her on medication. When her parents leave for a vacation, she drinks half a bottle of vodka and tries to slit her wrists. When that fails, she decides to swallow all her anti-depressant pills, but wakes up three days later, taking this as a sign that she shouldn't die. She begins a self-transformation that includes hair-removal, a new wardrobe, a perm, makeup, and exercise, which leads to her new job as an aerobics instructor.

Marji goes to a party hosted by a new friend of hers named Roxana. There she meets a young man named Reza, who she is warned is a "lady's man." and someone to watch out for. After a while, Marji realizes that the rumors about Reza are false and ill-intentioned. Marji and Reza hit it off and become a couple. They decide to move out of the country to have a better future for themselves. They both study hard for the National Exam in order to enter University, so as not to feel like they have wasted their lives, and pass. Marji is admitted for Graphic Arts and when she goes home to tell her parents, they tell her that she has a few more things to learn. Marji prays for the strength.

When on the street, Marji sees a bus and car full of guards, which she knows indicates a raid. Marji is wearing lipstick, which is illegal in Iran. To evade capture, she informs the guards that an innocent man spoke indecently to her. The guards arrest the man. Later, she meets up with Reza and they are confronted by guards because it is not socially acceptable for her to be with a man to whom she isn’t married. They are forced to pay a fine to evade torture. Afterwards, Marji tells the story of the innocent man to her grandma and is scolded for her selfishness.

Because they are not married, Marji and Reza have to hide their love from the general public. At the University the students are still divided by sex, but that doesn't stop any of them from flirting with one another. Marji makes friends with two other women from the University; Niyoosha and Shouka. There is a meeting in the amphitheater with the administrators of the University to lecture the students on how they need to dress more modestly. Marji speaks out against their hypocrisy for not showing the same treatment toward men. She claims that as an art student she needs to work more freely without the constraints of her headscarf. Marji is then summoned by the Islamic Commission, where she receives a warning. Her grandmother tells her that she is very proud of her for sticking up for herself and other citizens.

Marji continues to take art classes, but they are becoming quite difficult for various reasons. Marji, Reza and their friends try to live a normal life as possible. They hold secret parties at each other's houses until one day, a group of Guardians of the Revolution catch them through the apartment window, arresting the women and some of the men. Farzad, who tries to escape by roof-jumping, falls to his death. Those arrested get bailed out of jail by their parents and meet up to grieve over the loss of their friend.

In 1991 Reza proposes marriage to Marji, and after some contemplation, she accepts. Shortly after, with their parents’ blessings (Marji's mother takes some convincing), they have a big wedding. During the wedding celebration, Marji senses her mother is unhappy, and talks to her in the restroom. Taji admits she is disappointed that Marji wants to get married so young. Marji reassures her that this is what she wants, but as soon as the wedding ends, she realizes she feels trapped in the role of a permanent wife. Married life for Marji and Reza spirals out of control.

The war between Iraq and Kuwait has begun and panic is starting to spread throughout Europe. Many Iranians, however, are simply happy to no longer be at war. Later on a friend of Marji's named Fariborz invites them over to see the new satellite antenna he has had installed. They spend hours at his house watching anything they could without the Islamic regime's control. Meanwhile, Ebi senses that Marji is not happy in her marriage and tries to talk to her about it, but Marji storms off. She prefers to spend her time these days conversing with older intellectuals about politics.

In 1994 Marji and Reza decide to put aside their differences and work together on a project for their end of the year University assignment before graduation. They are assigned to create a theme park based on their mythological heroes. They have to present their project to a panel of judges for their dissertation. They receive a twenty out of twenty mark and are praised for their hard work. The main judge mentions that they should propose their project to the mayor of Tehran. Marji goes to the mayor with the work and shows him one of her drawings of Gord Afarid. The mayor is impressed with the work but comments that it would ultimately be unacceptable, as many of the female characters are without veils. Marji leaves disappointed.

Later on, Marji confides in Farnaz that she no longer loves Reza and wants a divorce. But Farnaz tells her that divorced women would be forever scorned so she would be better off staying. Marji confides in her grandmother, and her grandmother tells her that if she wants a divorce then she has every right to have one, admitting that she had been divorced herself. After much contemplation, including a few incidents at her new job as an illustrator for an economics magazine, Marji decides it's time to talk with Reza about separating. He tells her that he still wants to try to make it work and that he is still in love with her, but Marji insists that this is for the best, and that if they stay together any longer, the love will eventually dissipate and then they will truly feel trapped. Marji goes to her parents and tells them about her and Reza's divorce. Her father admits that he knew it would happen eventually, but never said anything because he wanted Marji to learn from her own mistakes. Her parents tell her that despite everything, they are still very proud of her and admire her growing maturity over the years. Her parents suggest that she should leave Iran permanently and live a better life back in Europe.

In late 1994 before her departure for Europe, Marji takes a trip to the countryside outside of Tehran to get one last taste of the Iranian scenery. She also goes to the Caspian Sea with her grandmother, visits the grave of her grandfather, and goes behind the prison building where her uncle Anoosh is buried. She spends the rest of the summer with her parents. In the autumn, Marji along with her parents and grandmother go to Mehrabad Airport for their final goodbye as she heads off to live in Paris. After many tears, Marji's mother tells her, "This time, you're leaving for good. You are a free woman. The Iran of today is not for you. I forbid you to come back!" Marji agrees. Marji gets behind the gate ready to board the plane and turns around one final time to wave goodbye to her family. The last time Marji sees her grandmother is during the Iranian New Year of 1995, as she dies in 1996. The book ends with the final quote, "Freedom had a price."


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