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Persepolis

Judy and friend at Persepolis

As a persnickety little kid in turbulent Iran, Marjane Satrapi was always asking questions and wanted to be a prophet. As author of the famous comic-book memoir "Persepolis,'' she's still passionately raising questions, but gustily hostile to prophecy and preaching.

In the Bay Area for a preview of the animated film of the same name based on her book, Satrapi said that when she was very young, she realized that "laughter could be the most subversive weapon. I could say anything to anybody if I said it as a joke. When I got serious, I was in trouble.''

(That night she kept a packed San Francisco theater roaring with laughter and appreciation for her bluntly funny talk and her infectious joie de vivre.)

Satrapi's energy was evident to readers of her 2003 graphic novel, "Persepolis.'' The book's story is very close to Satrapi's own. The daughter of a family of Marxist intellectuals in Tehran in 1979, Marji is a schoolgirl when the revolt against the shah brings religious extremists to power, putting her family in jeopardy, especially when the war with Iraq begins.

Marji is a rebel. At one point, she is detained by the Iranian Guardians of the Revolution for sporting black-market Nikes. At the end of her book, a teenage Satrapi leaves her mother and father to study in Vienna. Later, she would return to Iran to study at the School of Fine Arts in Tehran, but in 1994 she moved to Paris.

Book reviewers found that "Persepolis'' offered a special power and freshness because it is told pictorially and from the point of view of a child. "She's a scavenger of daily incident, spotting the tiny and not-so-tiny cracks in society during and after the revolution,'' wrote Joy Press in a 2003 "Village Voice'' review.

Writing and illustrating the book was a challenge. For the film, it took three grueling years of co-writing, drawing 600 characters and co-directing "Persepolis'' with comic artist Vincent Paronnaud. He was with her on the publicity tour for the film, but she was the one with lots to say.

Enveloped in travel-sensible black, with long, slightly disheveled dark hair, no makeup and glowing dark eyes, she speaks in a rush of words, with only the slightest accent — whether from Iran or Paris, where she now lives and was able to smoke to her heart's content until a smoking ban recently took effect. She looks as if she could be a stand-in for some Mother Courage, except that she has no children and doesn't want any. If she had any, would she want them to be as feisty as Mom? "No,'' she laughs, "maybe I'm scared that they'd be feisty. Maybe that's why I don't want any!''

Seriously, she says, "I know we're living in a world where all women have to be mothers. I never felt like being a mother. In life you cannot do everything. I am very happy with my life and work. I live with the man I love who is Swedish. There's nothing missing. I know it's not good to say these things. If you're a man and say, 'I want to sacrifice my life to the arts,' they say, 'Oh, look at this beautiful artist!' If you're a woman and say that, you become this ambitious bitch.''

Satrapi changed her mind about being a prophet, she says, because that "is like being a politician. It means one thing to be responsible for billions and billions of people. For me, being responsible for myself is already a very big deal. I hate preachers. I hate to preach. I hate to give answers. I don't have any answers to give, but I believe in ethics.''

By raising questions as an artist, she says, it's possible to make people realize that life is much more complicated than what they may think. Complexity of life that eludes easy answers — it is a subject she returns to constantly.

Although she has always been fascinated by all religions, she dislikes the ecclesiastical trappings, which she calls "decorations.'' "As long as we keep religion on a personal level, it's great, but in a country like the United States — which is called a secular democracy — when it's too mixed up with religion, it never has a good result. That is why I'm so scared of George W. Bush. Fanaticism is not necessarily religious because secular fanaticism also exists.''

Even when Satrapi subtly mocks herself — and others — in her whimsical cartoons, she still skewers fanaticism wherever and whenever it appears: during the dictatorial regime of the last shah of Iran; the turmoil of the Islamic revolution that imprisoned or executed family and friends with Marxist beliefs; and the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war with its call for fanatical martyrdom. She could even spot it in her anarchist pals when she spent four teenage years in Austria, where her parents hoped (unsuccessfully) that she would stay out of trouble.

Sick and depressed, she returned to Iran after living two months — hungry and broke — on the ice-cold winter streets of Vienna. It's a time that makes her understand the plight of the homeless everywhere. "It's a sick idea,'' she declares angrily, "that if you want, you can. Many times you want and maybe you can't. You're conditioned by society. I was lucky to be born in a nice neighborhood, the only child in a middle-class family. I could have been born in Baluchistan (southern Pakistan) with the same brain, but the life I have today would not have been possible.''

Satrapi says that the title "Persepolis'' — which in Greek means city of Persians — was meant to remind people of Iran's rich past. A reminder that is necessary, she believes, because knowledge of Iran today is stuck between the legendary story of Scheherazade, who told stories to the king to save her own life, and the country's contemporary support of terrorists. "Its history is much more complicated than that,'' she says. "This is a country with a very big culture.''

She's been away from her homeland for eight years, but she holds both Iranian and French passports and could theoretically visit Iran — although government officials reacted angrily when "Persepolis'' was screened at the Cannes film festival. However, she might not be allowed to leave the country (like some other Iranian exiles who visited and were temporarily imprisoned for spurious reasons and finally released.) "I don't think it's a very good time to visit,'' she said.

As for being in exile, it no longer bothers her as it once did. She is happy that many of her fellow exiles who have seen the film liked it. "Of course,'' she notes with a shrug, "some royalists don't like it, but I have to tell you something. I don't like everybody either, so there is no reason for everybody to like me.''

San Jose Mercury News December 2007

 

 

 

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