and friend at Persepolis
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
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''
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
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.''
Mercury News December 2007