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Month: October 2019

The Grass Isn’t Always Greener on The Other Side

I had high hopes for Marji’s new life in Europe. It seemed as though, because of her rebellious nature, she would fit into European culture much better than she fit into Iranian culture. I think Marji felt as though she would have new found freedom in Austria. Freedom to dress how she wanted, freedom to think how she wanted, freedom to act how she wanted. But perhaps the freedom was too much and too drastic for Marji. She had no stability during her time in Austria, constantly moving from friend to friend and house to house. She never quite found her footing and she eventually hit rock bottom by living on the streets. I could never have imagined that Marji would end up in the circumstances that she did. We forget that she is still a young adult, practically a child, and here she is facing the world on her own.

While it is impossible to know what would have happened to her if she stayed in Iran and not gone to Austria, one could at least imagine that her experiences during her teenage years would have been drastically different. Although Marji faced many difficult experiences that overshadowed any joy she might have felt in Austria, she was able to learn more about herself through the hardship that she faced. Marji still does not have a strong sense of self, but she at least knows who she is not. We are left with a sense of hopefulness after Marji reconnects with an old friend. Upon seeing her friend who is now confined to a wheelchair, Marji realizes that her life could be much much worse and she has no reason to feel sorry for herself anymore.

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The People Without Eyes (or Hair??)

Throughout the graphic novel, Marjane Satrapi has use black pinpoints to indicate the pupils of all of her characters. It is not until we meet blonde characters that we first see a switch to small circles in those faces, likely to indicate blue/green eyes. Though this change in pupils was not noticeable to me on the rare occasion that they were used for characters like Lucia or “Heidi,” they become especially noticeable in these chapters for characters like Ingrid and Markus.

Looking back at the reading, it’s interesting that not every blonde character seems to possess this feature, and no dark-haired people do (even from Europe). Obviously not all blonde-haired people have blue/green eyes, but this choice nonetheless reflects intentionality of the author behind who has these glaringly different pupils. They are especially noticeable with Markus, which suggests that she may have regarded them as a particularly salient or attractive feature. Similarly with Ingrid, it may have had to do with the distinctness of her light eye color in Marjane’s memory, or may have possibly been tied to their relationship with weed together, which the author often emphasized through sketches of glazed or spiraling eyes. Or maybe she was pointing to a certain vacantness in both characters.

Whatever the reason, I loved this feature in these chapters because it was startingling in a way that reminded me of Beloved. When Beloved referred to white people as the men “without skin,” it was a disorienting way of describing whiteness with “absence” of features. Similarly, by leaving a hole where the pupils for other characters can be found, Marjane is pointing to an absence of color in the blue/green eyes that are often highly regarded in Western culture. The pupiless eyes look creepy, much like the idea of people without skin. Needless to say, this detail didn’t add positively to my perception of these characters.

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Marjane’s Homecoming

This section of the novel was very jarring for me. It was painful for me to watch Satrapi fall in love only to have her heart broken after investing everything in Markus. It was especially painful to see her become homeless after seemingly finding her place in the world. Watching her literally digging out of trash cans and sleeping on benches was sad but seemingly had a purpose. It is clear that Marjane never fully adapted to the culture in Europe, and despite her thinking she was fitting in there was always that voice in the back of her head that she didn’t belong. This was never more clear than when she found herself alone and homeless.

All of this said, it was sort of bittersweet when she made the choice to return home to Iran after all these years. Watching her don the veil again with a somewhat sad look in her eyes gave me mixed feelings. On the one hand, she was finally returning to her home with her culture and family. But on the other hand she was returning to an oppressed fundamentalist Iran. Her brief moment of freedom was now being rescinded. However, in many ways this part of the story is representing a “coming of age” story for Marjane. She realizes that she flew too close to the sun during her time abroad and has hit rock bottom. Now it is time to see how she rebounds from this and how her time at home in Iran impacts her further.

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Satrapi’s Sacrifice

In this section of Persepolis, we see Marji return to Iran after living in Europe for four years. However, this return came at a very high cost after what she endured towards the end of her time there. Marji invested everything into Markus; her whole life would revolve around a relationship with a guy that she had only just met and Marji was in in no way prepared for when she eventually finds him in bed with another woman. She had spend much of her savings on him and had no plan outside of spending her life with him. This fairytale is completely shattered when their relationship ends, and Marji quickly finds herself homeless after she runs out of money. After she is forced to leave the buses and trains that she initially spends her nights in, she is relegated to sleeping on the streets in the middle of winter, greatly jeopardizing her health. Luckily, Marji is eventually hospitalized, but then has nowhere else to go. As a result, she collects money from Zozo and returns to Iran to live with her parents.

The chapter where Marji makes this major decision is a callback to the first volume of Persepolis; both chapters are titled “The Veil.” In both chapters, Marji goes from living without having to wear the veil to then transitioning into a culture where it is imposed upon her. However, this time, Marji is voluntarily returning to this culture because she has nowhere else to go. In this case, the veil is a last resort, and Marji is sacrificing her freedom of personal expression. Her personal expression was the reason why she initially left Iran, and now it is what she much sacrifice in order to survive after what happened to her in Europe. It’s interesting to see how much Marji has changed and come into herself since the start of her memoir, so I look forward to further reading how reentering the fundamentalist culture of Iran will personally affect her.

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Satrapi’s move

Satrapi’s move to Austria severely changed her not only her environment but perception of the world. Leaving Iran and living away from home for the first time introduced her into a whole new “free world” in which she began to question everything. Her exposure to the sexual revolution par western influence conflicted her original teachings in Iran. In certain instances Satrapi felt as if she was “playing a game by somebody else’s rules.” (39-for me) Her guilt ate at her conscious during this section as she adopted a more assimilated lifestyle. Why should she be smoking with her friends when her parents were being bombed, daily?

As Satrapi floats from different social circles she faces a constant “outsider” feeling. As Michael Paul referred to in his blog post, Marji can’t seem to find a group which accepts her for who she is and what she believes. Satrapi’s exposure to  western influenced anarchism was much different than her’s in Iran, yet rooted in a similar beliefs. 

Although the beginning of her move was not easy at first, Satrapi grew through her experience. Her mom’s visit towards the end of the section allowed for a stillness in Satrapi which she did not have before. Satrapi could understand why her mom would sacrifice so much for her safety and growth. 

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The Big Move

In this section of Persepolis, Marjane moves abroad to Austria to finish her education in a safer and less oppressive environment. Prior to this move, she had been getting in trouble at school for acting out which was a huge issue in the Iranian school system that was extremely strict. Additionally, Iran was consistently under attack and it was safer for Marjane to leave the country. In Austria, the school system was much more liberal than in Iran. It is interesting to see how Marjane’s high school experience in Austria was not unlike what we consider to be the ‘typical’ high school experience. She had a roommate, the normal high school friend drama, and the kids acted very similarly to how American kids in high school act as well. Marjane finally had the experience of focusing on normal high school things like finding the perfect friend group, learning how to fit in, etc. It is a refreshing and lighter moment in the book talking about Marjane’s high school experience in Vienna versus the sadder and heavier stories of her experiences living in Iran prior to her move.  

Before the big move, Marjane begins to experience death on a larger scale as Iran starts to be bombed. This is another moment the childlike/cartoonish drawings works in the book’s favor. If the story was only written as a novel, or also if the depictions of the bombings were real photos, this story would be too heavy and much harder to digest. Satrapi does an excellent job at making her harsh reality into a somewhat lighter story that more people are able to handle reading.

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A Little Effort, a Little Love, and a Little Understanding

When Marji makes the trip to Austria, there is hope that she will be able to start a new life free of judgment. It would have, for the most part, seemed that way had Satrapi chosen to begin with Marji’s short life with Zozo and her family, but instead, Satrapi began “The Soup” with her recollection of her time at the boarding house. Immediately, we are presented with Marji’s own judgment of Lucia, who she had never met. It is easy to see Marji as someone who is above bias based on the way that she presents herself and her experiences, but she automatically decides that Lucia is like her old friend Heidi without ever meeting her.

Similarly, when Marji meets Julie and is introduced to her friends, it again seems like she has finally found a group of people that lack superficial judgment, but we see on page 168 that this group of “outsiders” is quite similar to the people that Marji has tried to avoid. Both groups are depicted sitting in their own circles with their backs to the “others.” There are a couple of things that we are able to pull from this representation of judgment, the first being that no one is above judgment or bias. People are often surprised when they take the Implicit Bias Test to find out simply how much preconceived notions affect their decisions and views on other people. Similarly, as different as we are made to believe people are, we are all similar in many respects. It takes effort, as I am sure Marji must find out as she tries to avoid conformity without the judgments that naturally arise, but Satrapi is showing the reader that we are more similar than different and that a little effort, a little love, and a little understanding can go a long way in helping each individual on their journey through life, as it has for Marji so far.

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The Impact of Nothingness (Satrapi p. 135-206)

In this section of Persepolis, there was one thing that stood out to me more than anything else, and that was page 154. Or, I should say the lack of a page 154. It was so jarring to see the blank page after the completion of the section “The Dowry.” At first, I thought maybe she just left this page blank so she could start the next section on the right-side page, but sections have ended and started on the left page before, so why choose this moment to break the pattern of simply starting the next section on the immediate following page? It’s not as though the start of the new section would influence the end of “The Dowry” because you’d have to turn the page anyway. I then, of course, realized that this is likely where the story was split up into part one and part two. That being said, I think the effect it has is still valid.

Satrapi’s whole life changes at the bottom of page 153. She shows us this stylized image of her father carrying her mother away and lets the reader know she regrets looking back and seeing them this way. In this image, it’s less the image of her mother’s face that draws my eye and more the shadowed image of her father. Everyone else on the page is drawn “normally” whereas his face is drawn with black ink and white lining. It gives a horrifically somber look to the image. And the blank page on the opposite side has the same effect that it would had we finished the first Persepolis and were going to set it down. It has a note of finality, like we’re meant to linger here in this place. And I think that speaks to Marji’s feelings in this section about her time away from her parents. She’s still lingering in this place of comparing each guardian she has to her parents and wishing she were with them. She constantly thinks about things in terms of whether or not her parents would approve. And I think that’s a very natural thing for us in our culture as well. Even after reading another fifty pages after that, I still found myself thinking about that image followed by that blank page, so the effect it has really does carry forward, even though it might really be nothing more than just the practical fact that this is where the two parts were split up.

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Hitting Close to Home

While this section of Persepolis contains many important scenes, I was particularly struck by the panels recounting the explosion on Marji’s street. Amidst shopping with her friend, Marji learns that a missile exploded in her neighborhood. Satrapi uses different shapes for the speech bubbles to depict different emotions. The shop clerk, who informs Marji of the incident, has a speech bubble drawn with slightly rigid lines which suggests a shakiness in his voice. Satrapi draws Marji’s reply inside of a speech bubble with well-defined rigids; this artistic decision conveys both Marji’s urgency and feelings of terror. Once Marji arrives back on her street, the style of the drawings within the cells change. The blank backgrounds call attention to the dialogue between Marji and her mother. As they discuss whether or not the Baba-Levy’s were home at the time of the incident, Marji’s eyes communicate fear. Marji and her mother pass the Baba-Levy’s home which is illustrated with shading. This is the first time in the work that we see something drawn with more than one color. While physically the shading represents the damage caused by the missile, I think the artistic choice serves to draw attention to the magnitude of the event.

In this moment, the war hits close to home (both literally and metaphorically) for Marji. Marji recognizes Neda’s bracelet among the ruins of the Baba-Levy’s home. Upon closer examination, Marji realizes that the bracelet is still attached to Neda’s arm. This unimaginable moment, particularly for a young child to experience, is life-altering. Up until this point in the graphic novel, Marji idealized aspects of the war; however, in the last cell on page 142, Marji expresses both feelings of suffering and anger. This moment clearly causes any of those romantic feelings about war to disappear. The choice to express Marji’s feelings with just a black square as the illustration reveals the intensity of these feelings.

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The Impacts of War

The changes that happened in Marjane’s life were quite drastic and sudden. One moment, the shah was exiled and things seemed to be getting better, and the next, Iran is at war with Iraq. Perhaps most surprising, is Marjane’s interest in the war. She is not afraid at first, she wants Iran to win and almost enjoys seeing the battle against Iraq. As a child, she is obviously not able to fully understand the war, but what she does understand is intriguing to her and promotes nationalistic views that she had. It is interesting to see how Marjane and her family try to cope with their circumstances. Her parents throw parties for their friends and family, something that is forbidden but they know that the people need some happiness in their lives. No one has been in a situation like this before, so they are all just trying to figure it out as they go along. Rather than be consumed by fear, the Satrapi’s are trying to look for the good still left in their lives and embrace it.

We are brought back to the reality of what life is like in a war-torn country when Uncle Taher is unable to get proper medical attention because the borders of Iran are closed. One does not usually have to think about how they will get medical attention that they need, and having such advanced hospitals in America and also the ability to travel abroad to receive medical attention is something that we take for granted. It seems as though proper medical care should be a reasonable excuse to leave the country, but, unfortunately for Uncle Taher, his life or death situation was not enough of a reason to leave the country. While we see Marjane’s juvenile reactions to the world around her, it is important when stories like Uncle Taher’s are shared in order to put the reader back into the reality of Iran at the time and how the war affected people in many different ways. Marjane wants to leave Iran in order to get contraband Western goods, but Uncle Taher needs to leave Iran in order to receive critical surgery.

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