Blind Man with a Pistol

Persepolis: The Transparent Veil

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a film adaption of her autobiographical graphic novels, won the 2007 Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. In an era where serious journalism is becoming increasingly cartoonish, with villains like the “Axis of Evil” threatening our freedom and government agencies staging press conferences in dramatic mise-en-scènes, it is ironically fitting that a comic book should provide the most honest, complex and balanced analysis of contemporary geopolitics. Satrapi’s Persepolis 1 (2003) and Persepolis 2 (2004), traces the growth of an adolescent Iranian girl through revolution, war and fundamentalist oppression as she struggles to find her identity across two countries, continents and worlds.

Persepolis is named for the lost capital of Persia, a Muslim nation living in a western invention. In her article “Unveiling: Persepolis as Embodied Performance,” Jennifer Worth points out that unlike the slate of female Iranian expat memoirs that have appeared in the United States over the last decade (Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad [2005], for example), Satrapi’s work is concerned less with “recounting the difficulty of resolving an identity caught between two worlds” than “the formation of identity itself.” Even as ideological revolutions and wars cynically backed by Western governments play out, as loved uncles are executed for political beliefs and neighbours’ homes destroyed by daily bombings, what remains most striking and affecting about Persepolis is the simple story of a teenager struggling for self-definition. Certainly Marjane, Satrapi’s self-fashioned protagonist, contends with the isolation, both home and abroad, that accompanies Westernized Iranians: an unwelcome immigrant in Europe, but rendered a stranger in her homeland by her continental philosophies and tastes. But Marjane must also negotiate between parental authority and adolescent rebellion, sexual desire and fear of rejection, personal integrity and the lure of superficiality.

While the novel has historically provided Eastern and Western women with a “safe” outlet into the public sphere traditionally denied them, the graphic novel foregrounds not only the ability to be heard, but, of special resonance to Iranian women, at least to women like Satrapi who object strongly to enforced adherence to the hijab, the ability to be seen as well. (However, despite her virulent criticism of the veil as a symbol of violent oppression, Satrapi equally objects to an enforced banning of the veil, as she articulated in this Guardian essay with regards to the French ban on “conspicuous” manifestations of religious belief.) Notwithstanding her objection to the veil, however, Satrapi’s identity remains indelibly tied up with it. In fact, Satrapi’s text internalizes somewhat the logic of the veil: it is both an image of and an attempt to remake identity. By rendering the veil transparent, Persepolis embodies Satrapi’s political struggleto uphold the honour of her native country while liberating it from the oppression she perceives.

The convergence of image and text in the rewriting and re-imaging of the body registers both the immediacy of identity performance (as Scott McCloud writes in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art [1994], in the graphic novel, “it is always now”) and the narrative of maturationan interminable process of becoming. Furthermore, the choice of the liminal literary form of the graphic novel ensured that Satrapi’s autobiography would be digested as a doubly marginalized text: the specialized form of graphic novel is even less mainstream than the comic book. “The goal of my life is always to be marginal, to be on the margins, not to be part of any group,” Satrapi insists in an interview with The Independent. Satrapi’s celebration of liminality, in both form and content, allows her ongoing struggle with identity in the face of pressures both personal and global, to produce a powerful, beautiful statement on life in the twenty-first century.

2 Comments so far
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Persians are not an Arab people.

Comment by Sarah

Absolutely true, Sarah. I apologize for my carelessness. I have corrected the error.

Comment by Blind Man

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