Saturday, December 08, 2007

Now a Major Motion Picture.

A couple of years ago, I read a book review of Persepolis, an autobiographical comic book by Marjane Satrapi (pronounced "Mar-shahn Sah-trappy" I'm writing this out because I've been reading the book without a clue how to say her name which makes it difficult to tell people about it). It's the story of a young girl's experience growing up in revolutionary Iran. I decided to wait until the previous two books came out in a combined volume before picking it up. The book is more than just an insight into a country we know little about but also a remarkably moving tale of being true to oneself and recognizing where you come from. Now I'm keen to see the film which had its North American premiere in Toronto at the Film Festival. Better yet, it's an animated film. Only in Europe or Asia do studios make animated films that are not necessarily about fairy tales or children's stories. For all of Ratatouille's sophistication, it is still a "family" film. If Persepolis was made here, it would have quickly been switched to live action without a thought for how it would affect the telling of the story.

For years, my only view of Iran was that of deranged fundamentalists who had taken American citizens hostage in the Tehran embassy. I made no connection whatsoever between historical Persia and these Muslim fundamentalists. Let's back up a little bit. In 1979, I was 11 and I distinctly recall a conversation while we were watching the news about how the Shah had been exiled and how basically this seemed good news. An American placed dictator had been ousted, removing overt foreign influence in the region, allowing the founding of a new republic with a distinct Muslim voice. Sounded good to us. My brother and I reasoned that these were pious religious folk and surely a country that showed that kind of faith would be good and peaceful. My father wasn't so sure saying the religious leader, Khomeinhi, was known to be well educated but may be a "a bit of an extremist". I couldn't understand how you could be "a bit of an extremist" but my Dad said we'd have to wait and see how it would turn out. How, you might ask, would an 11-year-old know what "extremist" was? This was the seventies. It seemed every week a flight was being hijacked by "Arab extremists" - later, Anwar Sadat would be killed by one. Violence in the Middle-east defined the news as much 25 years ago as it does today. Then came the "Hostage Crisis" in Tehran and anything you may have thought of Iranians went out the window. In the simplified view of TV news, every Iranian man was a screaming religious nutjob and every woman, a repressed and suppressed victim forced to wear the veil.

There was (and probably still is) a complete disconnect between the historical cultures of the Middle East and their present day counterparts. When I was a kid, I could not understand how Egypt went from advanced culture to near third-world status? Similarly, I could not equate the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Persia and their advances in math, astronomy, engineering, architecture and art with the images of crazed Muslims chanting and climbing fences in Tehran. Then came the Iran-Iraq war and to be honest, the presiding opinion was, "let them bomb each other back to stone-age, when the dust settles, we'll all be better for it." Except of course, it took eight years for the dust to settle and no one was better for it. That war was a stalemate for so long, it was easy to forget it was still going on. Then I went to university and for whatever reason (uh, the Islamic Republic, violent war in the region) there were Iranian ex-pats everywhere. The one thing you heard over and over from Iranians (and even occasionally from an Iraqi or someone from Turkey) was that the view the West had of the country was entirely wrong. Tehran was a city of well-educated multi-lingual, metropolitan and cultured citizens, not slogan chanting religious fanatics. Most of all, Iranians were/are not Arabs, but Persians and speak Farsi not Arabic. Actually, you'd get an earful about Arabs in general (come to think of it, it would be really interesting to redo "Lawrence of Arabia" from the opposite side. Not that of a British hero, but that of meddling Imperialist operative whose actions would have decidedly violent implications in today's political landscape).

That's the baggage I bring to reading Satrapi's memoir, "Persepolis" and with incredible clarity, Starapi knows this. She writes and illustrates the story as someone with a foot in both the "secular West" and an Islamic Republic, who struggles to be herself in a world that makes that difficult. Her story is even more fascinating given her family's connection to Iran's past political and intellectual elite. My only criticism is in some ways, Satrapi's depiction of the "secular West" mimics how Europeans thought about Iranians in that many of the characters she meets in Vienna are stereotypes of shallow, spoiled, bored, over-indulgent, disengaged youth who rebel for the sake of rebelling and in the end have little focus or meaning to their lives. Only one person she meets (the mother of a friend) has any knowledge or interest in Iran. Yet, even this made me want to read on and discover more about how you survived in a world where music, jewelry, public affection or having a beer were all punishable offences. I kept thinking how would you allow your society to be taken over by such extreme forces? The answer is simple; fear. How can I be critical of that? Here in Canada we not only allow intolerance, we voted for it (and will probably do so again). Similarly, American voters voted in a party that had a record of stomping on civil liberties and personal freedoms by manipulating their fears and exploiting their faith. How does it happen? Unfortunately it happens very easily.

Listen here to hear Marjane Starapi talk about her experiences and book (from an NPR interview).

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