I plowed right through Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis this week, in its English translation. It's a tremendous book, about Satrapi's experience growing up in Iran from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. In many ways, Persepolis is typical Bildungsroman: Satrapi starts as a remarkable child, gifted and willful, and ends up derailed or disillusioned when she is sent by her parents to Vienna at the age of fourteen, to be kept safe from both the Iran-Iraq war and the increasingly repressive Iranian government. Satrapi isn't edified by this time abroad, however, and it is only when she returns to Iran that she begins to patch herself back together. This is a story that could easily have been a narrative of victimization, but it's not: it's a narrative of disrupted formation in a time of conflict and political repression, and it's truly wonderful.
That said, what's most important about Persepolis might be what it accomplishes politically. The version of Middle Eastern culture that is presented in North American media is, as goes without saying, grossly simplified. Even setting aside flatly offensive depictions of people of the Middle East as the enemy, the other -- there are few if any mainstream sources that account even for regional or national differences, let alone for the real experiences of individuals or groups within regions. And there are real differences. If I'm going to insist on difference between Canada and the United States, or Canada and Britain, it's equally important for me to insist on differences between Iran and Afghanistan, Egypt and Algeria. And yes, these differences are far, far easier to quantify.
Satrapi is concerned with Iranian culture, language, and history, and makes it clear that it's distinct, in important ways, from that of the rest of the region. Her characters are compelling, nuanced, and (with a few exceptions) totally 'modern'. This is a thoughtful, first-hand historical account, and one that I doubt could be read by somebody with a limited awareness of Iran, or the Middle East in general, without shaking up their concept of a homogeneous Middle Eastern culture. And I guarantee that most of you have such a concept of Middle Eastern culture.
Reading and writing, it bears saying again, always have a political purpose. If you want to be really politically and culturally aware, you should be reading not outsider accounts (or not only outsider accounts), but cultural documents from inside a region. If thoughtful, human, politically-aware books like Persepolis were typical on North American curricula, it'd be much harder to convince us of the abstract wickedness of people "over there", wherever the "over there" of the moment happens to be.
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