Having recently reviewed Ellen Forney’s Marbles, I would now like to take up one aspect of another notable graphic memoir, Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis (New York: Pantheon, 2003-2004).
Persepolis relates the story of Marjane Satrapi, who grew up during the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. (The story was made into a feature movie that was co-winner of the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival in 2007; it was directed by the author and Vincent Paronnaud.)
While Persepolis reveals the repression meted out by the post-revolutionary government against women, religious minorities, gays, dissenters, and anyone who simply by accident ran afoul of the often cruel and always humorless authorities, the author also brings out the struggle of an Iranian woman to feel pride in her Iranian nationality–and to keep her promise to her uncle and grandmother never to deny that identity.
The title, Persepolis, makes reference to the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire, which is now a “World Heritage Site” in Iran and includes remnants of its citadel. The title ties in with Iran’s rich historical tradition and achievements.
There is this profound irony of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, as brought out by Ms. Satrapi. Iran enjoyed a rich and influential religious Zoroastrian tradition that was late usurped by the Arab invasions of the seventh century A.D.. The Islamic invaders sought to extirpate traces of the native Zoroastrian creed; it was identified with the just overthrown Sassanid dynasty, who had ruled for almost one thousand years. (Later, after the catastrophe of the invasions, the adherents of Zoroaster gained some tolerance from their new masters, as long as they paid tribute, though they suffered continuing indignities.) Thus, the Islamic revolution, led by cleric Ruhollah Khomeini (which overthrew the Shah in 1979), created an Islamic state in the name of the Iranian people– though Islam is essentially a foreign influence in Iran (both as to language and doctrine) that had centuries earlier captured the region by force. Islam is an import to Iran, or–since it was achieved by force–an export from Arabic speaking lands of the Middle East
The life of the prophet Zoroaster (a Greek version of the name Zarathustra) is shrouded in mystery, but he is thought to have lived ca. 1500 to 1000 BC in the region of modern Afghanistan and Iran. He is associated with a monotheistic tradition–analogous to that of Moses and Pharaoh Akhenaten–which probably derived from a simplification of Indian Hindu tradition.
Most scholars agree that Zoroastrian doctrine influenced Judaism, and through Judaism, Christianity and (later) Islam. Further, the notion of the opposition of forces of good and evil, intrinsic to Zoroastrian thinking, resonates with the ideas of good and evil, and heaven and hell, in Abrahamic religions as well as Islam. Vladimir Lenin once said that “history is sly,” and it is certainly more complex than will be granted by authoritarian governments seeking to administer by the claim of divine right.
Thus, there is significant evidence of common themes, and cross-influence, in the historic “great religions,” including influences to and from the Far East (including Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism). As a further irony, the humane indigenous Iranian creed called Baha’i, which emphasizes commonality in religious experience, has been fiercely persecuted in post-revolutionary Iran, even more so than Judaism.
In one passage in Persepolis, the author makes reference to one of Zoroaster’s mottos: “good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” As someone was was raised in a (dual) Judeo-Christian home, I was thinking of comparison and contrasts. The notion of a close connection between thought and deed is very deeply rooted in my own tradition. In Western law, the purpose of crime is thought to be very important in matters of punishment, even if the effect is the same. The notion of “good deeds’ brings up the Reformation debate of “faith versus works,” but the message of Zoraoaster’s credo is everything. It embraces thoughts and words and deeds; it is totalizing in its prescription for goodness.
Zoroastrians favor conversion, like Christians and Muslims, but unlike most Jews. In general, conversion doctrine has both humanistic and despotic possibilities, occurring through evangelism (teaching) or force, or both. One thing I do like about the doctrine of conversion is its non-racist premise: all peoples are eligible for salvation. In this sense, there is no “chosen people,” which is a concept I bridle against for humanistic reasons, despite my ancestry.
This reminds me of a recent experience in New York City. We see these “Mitzvah-Mobiles,” which are vans operated by members of the orthodox Lubavitch Jewish sect. “Mitzvah” is a Hebrew word that means “commandment” or “blessing.” The adherents hope to encourage ethnic Jews to follow Judaic law more closely. A man in orthodox dress and hair style approached me on the sidewalk with the very direct question, “Are you a Jew?” I could have used a mitzvah that day, so I answered, “My father is a Jew.” He let me go immediately, saying, “For us, it goes by the mother.” I was slightly offended that this man would seem to speak on behalf of all Jews and to exclude me. He didn’t stop to find out that the Gestapo killed ancestors of mine in Budapest; for fascists, it doesn’t go just “go by the mother.” From my family experience, I would offer a sociological definition of Judaism, based on whether fascists define you as such.
I can’t discern, as to revealed truth, a grading of the world’s religious traditions. But from a humanistic viewpoint, I would be ready to defend those religious practices that show tolerance, respect for other beliefs and non-violence, and which eschew fanaticism. Something that influenced me was John Stuart Mill’s essay, “On Liberty,” a masterpiece of classic liberalism.
It makes one unspeakably sad to think of what Marjane Satrapi’s and her generation went through, as an abomination of human thought and culture and governance. Out of that grim tragedy, which continues, and for which we Americans bear significant historical responsibility, comes Persepolis. Writer, artist, director: Satrapi, this multi-talented woman, has taken a horror and transformed it into an abiding work of art.
About the author: Andrew Szabo is founder and CEO of MindBodyForce.com. Comments: please contact Editor@MindBodyForce.com. Copyright 2013 MindBodyForce.com.