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By Abnousse Shalmani

PARIS, 24 FEBRUARY 2008- Any Iranian had a tricky question to answer back in 1986: was Betty Mahmoody really ill-treated by her husband, the doctor, in grim and gloomy Tehran, the city of barbarians who crouched on the ground to eat with their fingers and who blew their noses in their chadors before using bathrooms infested by cockroaches?

Today, all who meet a Persian will say: what a fabulous and glorious culture! However, between the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the current nuclear dispute, something odd has happened, a form of schizophrenia: two Irans exist, side by side. There's that of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the hostile, anti-Semitic head of state elected in 2005, and the Iran of the younger generation connected to Internet and cable TV, including the award-winning film directors and people like Shirin Ebadi, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

These two Irans are encapsulated in the graphic novel Persépolis , by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian women residing in France, translated into 18 languages and with 1.5 million copies sold. The film, awarded the prix du jury at the 60th Cannes Film Festival and chosen to represent France at the Oscars ceremony, has, together with the book, become a political symbol.

Persépolis, directed by Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud, France, 2007
Illustration by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Inc. (C) 2007

A little girl, Marjane, Marji for short, who is very likeable though stubborn, tells the story of her childhood. Fairly ordinary autobiographical stuff except that she was brought up in Tehran during the Islamic revolution which brought Ayatollah Khomeyni to power. The comic book is special in form and content: the complex and little known story of these years has been told through the eyes of a child, in easy words and simple brushstokes, becoming accessible to everyone, wherever they live and whatever their age.

Marji grows up amidst all the troubling contradictions of the Revolution, the Islamic Republic, and the exile in Austria before her arrival in France, and the originality of the film lies both in her personality and that of her truculent grandmother. Addicted to opium, liberated and excessive, this grandmother is resolutely against all forms of moral repression. It's a surprising relationship between these two who symbolize both the past and future and who bring to the fore the problem of the 'lost generation', those who didn't see what was happening or who misinterpreted events. Persépolis is about what Persia was and what Iran could one day become.

"Punk"-dressing Marjane outwits two guardians of the revolution
Directed by Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud, France, 2007
Illustration by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Inc. (C) 2007

Persepolis in fact is Great Persia, that great empire which embraces good wine, poetry and victories. It's about Ferduzi, Hafez and Zarathustra, the Goddess Mitra and saffron, the road to India, the Shahs, the arts of the Safavids and gardens. Think of Persia and you have Alexander and caviar, Farah Dibah and Chanel on the cover of Paris Match magazine as well as the great Darius, cherries, and miniatures, all the things happening before 1979 and the Revolution.

Within the space of a few months everything had changed; there was the incident of the hostages at the American Embassy, held prisoners for 444 days from November 1979 until January, 1981, the outbreak of the war between Iran and Iraq which lasted from 1980 to 1988 and cost the lives of over a million people and which highlighted fanatical Shiite martyrdom, the assassination in Paris of the ex-prime minister, Shapur Bakhtiar in 1991 which triggered the series of fatwas which continue to this day.

In short, the country has sunk deeper into a form of extremism which is in the process of wiping out Iran's glorious history. Poor quality telefilms and the popular press are reinforcing this negative image as is all the fuss in the media over Mahmoody's book. Iran with all its exoticisms has become a country to be avoided.

Little by little, from the mid 1990's, Iran has revealed some of its contradictions, a result of the confrontation of its young population, (65 % of the population is under 25), and the outside world. President Khatami's tentative reforms, the student demonstrations of 1999 and 2003 for more freedom (when more than 4,000 were arrested), and the countless intellectuals who were taken into custody color the image of Iran today.

To better explain this idea, there is the film, Syriana , directed by Stephen Gaghan in 2005. In a rapid series of shots, a young woman is seen changing her high-heeled shoes, her mini-dress and stockings for a pair of trousers, sneakers, and veil before she goes out. This is typical of Tehran in 2005, where young people conform to the law, but live their 'true' lives at home.

Persépolis, directed by Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud, France, 2007
Illustration by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Inc. (C) 2007

Via the cinema, however, Tehran is holding its own. Directors such as Abbas Kiorostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his daughter, Samara, and Jafar Panahi are winning the most prestigious prizes in many important festivals. Thus it was that Kiorostami received the "Palme d'Or' for his movie, The Taste of Cherries in 1997. Jafar Panahi was awarded the "Lion d'Or" three years later for The Circle , despite being prevented from attending the Venice Film Festival until the last moment by the Iranian Board of Censors, symbol of the oppression of women.

Now the Iranian nuclear issue has come to complicate world affairs. And yet at the same time, Iran is attracting attention as a country at the limit of schizophrenia, for alongside the hysterical speeches of the President, there is the phenomenon of Laleh Seddigh, an attractive 30-year-old who has become the first sportswoman to take part in mixed competitions since the beginning of the Revolution. Her victories in car racing were first banned from the news while she herself has been forbidden to participate in sports events at the Azadi stadium in Tehran. The country's young generation are both highly if not over-informed and are in the strange position of claiming more liberty from a regime which is suffocating them, while refusing to follow the lead of the West on the nuclear issue.

Persépolis ,dire cted by Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud, France, 2007
Illustration by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Photo: courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Inc. (C) 2007

The image that the West has of Iran is coming from the cultural scene with the publication of Persépolis in 2000, the film of which turned into a political event at Cannes, 2007.

It's now too late for Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud to insist upon the humanist aspect of the work; if one describes the absurdities and violence of the Islamic Republic, it is a political act. And while the President Ahmadinejad is organizing a egationist conference in Tehran, the Western world is being swept off its feet by the tragicomic adventures of little Marji. The voices of the two small heroines of the film are dubbed by Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux, for which they got one of the longest standing ovations at the festival.

However, there is now a diplomatic rumpus. The Islamic Republic has made an official protest to France for presenting a film which it feels does not show the revolution in its true light.

From the moment Satrapi spoke, accepting the trophy which she then dedicated to all Iranians, the gulf widened between the Muslim fundamentalists represented by the President and an indeterminate group, the "Iranian people". The fact that France decided to enter this particular film for the Oscars only accentuates the political side of the film.

Persepolis gives a face to Iran. A human face. The emotion in the Iranian population of France and elsewhere which has arisen over the film lies in the fact that these exiles needed to hear another voice regardless of whether they were in total agreement of its views or not.

Indeed, the weakness of Persepolis lies in the fact that it is a one-sided version of events, a left-wing one. The Iranian Communist Party, the Tudeh Party, lost the 1979 elections. Outlawed back in 1949 after a failed assassination attempt on the Shah at the University of Teheran during the Iranian-American rapprochement, the Tudeh party was a fringe group of wealthy landowners and aristocrats, vehemently opposed to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Persépolis, directed by Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud, France, 2007
Illustration by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Inc. (C) 2007

Political prisoners liberated after the 1979 revolution were emprisoned again and Satrapi has chosen to portray them as heroes who fought against the mullahs to establish a democracy. This was only partially true, as these people were more concerned with discussing Stalin than with democracy-building.

And, like the Russian Communists , they were so anti-American that for a while they cooperated with the Islamists. The Iranian leftists never had a real plan for a leftist revolution, no one really hoodwinked them.

That is not the only flaw in the text: Marjane Satrapi portrays the revolutionary Islamists as religion-obsessed illiterates in both the comic book and the film. For example, the director of a hospital in the film is a former window cleaner of one of his patients, who dares not look at him in the face for fear that he will refuse the authorization to operate on her husband. While it is true that the Iranian Revolution relied heavily on the growing mass of the city's poor, boorish and religious working class, the intelligentsia also took part: the doctors, teachers, lawyers, journalists, and film makers (such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf for some ten years) actively supported the mullahs' Revolution.

Persepolis arrives at a very tense moment of world politics. The film plays upon the innocence of childhood and contains real emotion despite its historical inaccuracies. It is full of humanism and poetry, the symbol of a generation who has only known the Iran of the mullahs. So, in these difficult times, let this new face of Iran help us decypher the country and its culture.

And keep the last scene of the film in mind. At Orly Airport, a taxi-driver asks Marji where she is from as she backtracks from the departure hall where she can no longer board a flight, and she replies in a dark breath "Iran". She has not seen her native country in many long years, and she puts all the suffering of the exiles in that one word.

Born in Tehran in 1977, Abnousse Shalmani is a Paris-based film producer and director. She is currently working on a documentary, a short, and a novel with strong historical overtones.

Book Tips

All titles are chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

The Complete Persepolis
By Marjane Satrapi

Paperback: 352 pages
Pantheon (October 30, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0375714839
ISBN-13: 978-0375714832

The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future
By Vali Nasr
Paperback: 240 pages
W. W. Norton (April 2007)
ISBN-10: 0393329682
ISBN-13: 978-0393329681

The Soul of Iran
A Nation's Journey to Freedom

By Afshin Molavi

Paperback: 352 pages
W. W. Norton; Rev. Ed edition (September 2005)
ISBN-10: 0393325970
ISBN-13: 978-0393325973

Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower
By Zbigniew Brzezinski
Hardcover: 240 pages
Basic Books (March 2007)
ISBN-10: 0465002528

The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500 - 1900
By Rudi Matthee

Hardcover: 366 pages
Princeton University Press (July 2005)
ISBN-10: 0691118558
ISBN-13: 978-0691118550

Paris Chic, Tehran Thrills
Aesthetic Bodies, Political Subjects

By Alexandru Balasescu
Paperback & Electronic (pdf)
Pages: 318
Zeta Books, 2007
ISBN 978-973-87980-2-1
Book: 29 EUR (aprox. 41 USD) - shipping not included
eBook: 9 EUR (aprox. 12 USD)

Hollywood Kitsch: DVD

Not Without My Daugther (1991)
Brian Gilbert, director
With: Sally Field, Alfred Molina, Sheila Rosenthal
Based on the book by Betty Mahmoody & William Hoffer

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External Links

The Legend of Shiraz - a Persian Fairy Tale

Iranian Film Festival 2008: 17 - 19 October 2008, Rotterdam

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