Veiled humor

I just finished Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the most astonishing comic book I’ve ever seen. Persepolis tells the story of Satrapi’s childhood in Iran, during which she witnessed the repressive regime of the Shah, then the takeover by Khomeini (who made the Shah look like Mr. Rogers), then the war with Iraq. What makes the story so compelling is not the horrors — next-door neighbors killed by an Iraqi missile, relatives tortured and executed for counterrevolutionary activities, etc. — but Satrapi and her friends’ absurd attempts to enjoy a normal childhood while all of this was going on. She describes how the girls in her school, suddenly forced to wear veils, would put them on backwards and pretend to be “monsters of the darkness”; how her dad brought her an Iron Maiden poster from Turkey by weaving it into his suit, lurching through airport security like Frankenstein’s monster; how a food shortage that emptied the supermarkets of everything but kidney beans provided an occasion for fart jokes. For me, reading this book only deepened the mystery of Iran: namely, how could such a funny, literate, humane country be conquered so completely by fundamentalist thugs? On reflection, I guess it’s happened before. And I guess I should be grateful that in the US, our secular institutions are strong enough that even Bush hasn’t destroyed them entirely.

Persepolis raises pointed questions about the naïveté of intellectuals, like the Iranian Marxists who refused to see the Islamists for what they were until it was too late. To any intellectuals still in Iran, I can only second Eldar’s advice, in the comments to a previous post: Get out! Get out now! And to everyone else, set aside a couple hours (which is all it takes) to read Persepolis. It might be the first comic book to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.

22 Responses to “Veiled humor”

  1. aram Says:

    how could such a funny, literate, humane country be conquered so completely by fundamentalist thugs?

    This might be a rhetorical question, but I’ll try to answer anyway. I think a good deal of blame should fall on the Shah and his American backers. Significantly, anti-Americanism accounted for a huge part of Khomeini’s early support. Muslims and Arabs often choose local dictators over foreign ones. I bet most people would, in fact.

    Class issues are also probably important. The 1978 protests only got overwhelming support after the lower & middle classes were hit by inflation, unemployment and gov’t austerity measures. People first embraced the revolution and only after it took power did it turn fundamentalist.

    Similarly for Ahmadinejad: while the West focusses on his religion, his anti-Israel rhetoric, etc…, the Iranians who voted for him mostly did so because he was the only one that spoke to them about economic issues.

  2. aram Says:

    On an unrelated note, I also thought Persepolis was good, but I liked Maus much more. I wonder, though, if that’s only because I’m Jewish and more in Maus resonates with me, or if it somehow is “objectively” better.

    So some Iranians who have read both books should say which they preferred, and we can figure out where my Maus preference comes from. Or a Jew who preferred Persepolis would work too!

  3. Scott Says:

    Aram: I partly agree with you — it’s similar to how the Allies bear some of the blame for creating the economic conditions that allowed Hitler to emerge. On the other hand, the mistake the Iranian Marxists made was precisely that of assuming that “economics is everything” — and that because religion didn’t matter to them, it also wouldn’t matter to anyone else (at least after a brief “transitional period”). It wasn’t the first or the last time such an assumption led to a spectacularly wrong prediction about human behavior.

    I haven’t read Maus, but I’ll put it on my stack.

  4. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott: Eldar’s advice is not completely wrong, not only in regard to Iran, but to a lot of countries in the world. Iran isn’t even the worst case. North Korea is 100 times worse off than Iran, for example. Unlike Iran, North Korea is a prison for its entire population.

    Nevertheless I think that Eldar’s advice is incomplete and ultimately unfair. Every country in the world continually regenerates its intellectual class, of course. What kind of prospects do you expect a country to have its intellectuals leave year after year? If the failed state in question is East Germany or North Korea, then you can imagine it being assimilated by a successful neighbor. Otherwise, in the long term, it will have to get on its own feet somehow.

    You can look at China. Mao was about as bad as the Ayatollah Khomenei, and rather worse than Ahmadinejad. Nonetheless, China is now rising from its past sickness and it is one of the greatest upturns in the human condition in the history of the world. Which is not to dismiss the enormous problems that China still has, but at least now it is slowly solving them.

    Indeed, Iran’s own reforms should not be dismissed either. You can call it a “paradox”, but it is no more of one than any other place. Every country has good and bad people. Sometimes the good people make quiet progress even while the bad people are on “top”. Two key indicators of social progress in a country like Iran are the birth rate and women’s education. Unlike in 1980, Iran is now well ahead of many other countries in the region on both counts.

  5. Andy D Says:

    I also preferred Maus, for its still-more-harrowing plot and its ingenious father-son storytelling framework. (And for the record, I’m closer to being Jewish than Iranian.)

    However, Persepolis 2 I appreciated for making subtler points about how even in relative freedom abroad, a traumatic history and sense of moral urgency entangled with more standard sources of teenage malaise to torture Satrapi and produce her very interesting adult perspective.

    People criticize it as a more self-absorbed work than the original–it is, that’s adolescence and human weakness faithfully portrayed–but it’s well worthwhile in my opinion.

  6. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Aram: The political left across the world has developed a standard formula for blaming the United States for all of the world’s problems. It is like the germ theory of disease. It is often true, often enough that you might think that it is always true. But you can fall to it without adequately considering other explanations.

    For example, in the 19th century people thought that milk sickness was an infectious disease. It looked a lot like one. They eventually traced it to white snakeroot, a plant which is delicious to cows, but poisonous to humans. If they had investigated this alternative explanation earlier, Abraham Lincoln’s mother would not have died of milk sickness.

    Anyway, I very much doubt that Ahmadinejad was the only one who spoke to Iranians about economic issues. I bet that every Iranian candidate spoke about economic issues. Speaking about economic issues is obvious; every candidate in every free election in every country knows to do it. Evidently more Iranians believed Ahmadinejad’s economic promises, but that could be for reasons that have nothing to do with economics. They may have felt that his desire (or pretense of a desire) to annihilate Israel made him generally trustworthy.

    In fact, I will make the provocate statement that no country in the 20th or the 21st century has ever gained anything by being anti-American. Not because criticism of the United States is wrong (it is often completely correct), but simply because the United States is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. If it heeded sound criticisms, it would be even wealthier and more powerful. It is also part of a club of allies that have an outright majority of the world’s money and power. That club’s dominance seems permanent, because new countries join the club as they make progress. Ireland, South Korea, and Poland are three examples of that.

    So while it makes sense to criticize the United States, it makes no sense to be anti-American.

  7. Mohammad Says:

    To Greg Kuperberg:
    “Evidently more Iranians believed Ahmadinejad’s economic promises, but that could be for reasons that have nothing to do with economics. They may
    have felt that his desire (or pretense of a desire) to annihilate Israel
    made him generally trustworthy.”

    As an Iranian, it saddens me to see people with apparently little or no knowledge about the Iranian people, the political situation, and history
    of Iran write statements like this.

    Two quick points:
    First, I should say it clearly that there is not even a single good point I can say about the elected president of Iran (I blamed Americans for electing Bush and now I see an even worse tragedy happening in my own
    country). BUT as far as I know there was absolutely no talk about Israel, the Iran’s future stand on this matter, or anything related to it
    in the pre-election campaign.
    Most (I can say more than 90%)
    of Iranians are more concerned about the internal issues. So, assuming that Ahmadi-nejad was elected because he said tough (stupid!) things about
    Israel is a mis-concept.

    Two: Blaming US is NOT a standard formula. If you don’t know it yet, it was the US who overthrew the only democratic government of Iran in the past
    century only to return the Shah (in the coup of 1952), and I strongly believe that the revolution and the hatred of US (at least at that time) was a
    direct consequence of this act.
    If you have any doubt about it I remind you the apology issued by Madlin Albright, Secretary of State under Bill Clinton’s government, to the Iranian people. Of course, I think US government owes a lot more than just an apology. Do you think changing a nation’s future as it has happened in Iran is forgiven with a simple apology? I don’t think so!

  8. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    It seems that CNN spread extreme misinformation (as of Dec. 2004) about a country that doesn’t talk much about Israel:

    Tehran, Iran, now, a blastoff, a test of the Shahab (ph) III missile. With a range of about 800 miles, it can reach Israel. Just last month, the missile was shown off in a military parade with a banner draped over it saying, quote, “Israel must be wiped off the world map.” But Iran insists its missile program is for defensive purposes only.

  9. Mohammad Says:

    Greg said:

    “It seems that CNN spread extreme misinformation (as of Dec. 2004) about a country that doesn’t talk much about Israel.”

    How relevant to my post!! You still think that that a nation (and all Iranians) want to “wipe out” Israel. It seems you see no distinction between a person and
    a nation. This way, if I am mad (or at war) with someone from country X then I can take it on any person Y from country X.

    Isn’t it too close to the philosophy of terrorists?

  10. Anonymous Says:

    The result of the Iranian election is not particularly aberrant compared to the norms in many western countries (despite the bizarre way that elections are run in Iran). By all reports Ahmadinejad ran as the young energetic alternative to the corruption symbolized by
    Rafsanjani’s wealth accumulated while significant portions of the country were in economic difficulty. His popular election success had little to do with his hatred of Israel.

    When we in the west get into a ‘throw the bums out’ mood we often end up with wolves in sheep’s clothing. The same thing has happened in Iran. It is deplorable and unfortunately the checks and balances in Iran seem less likely to moderate things than they would here.


  11. Kurt Says:

    Paul – “It is deplorable and unfortunately the checks and balances in Iran seem less likely to moderate things than they would here.”

    I cannot comment on the situation in Iran, out of my own personal ignorance of that part of the world. But here in the U.S., we have had very little in the way of functioning “checks and balances” for the past 4 years. This appears to be changing now, at last. So perhaps we should wait a few years to see how things develop in Iran.

  12. Scott Says:

    Mohammad: Thanks for your insights! I’m glad to hear that >90% of Iranians care more about the internal issues — there’s a long tradition in some countries of using Israel to distract people from internal problems. On the other hand, history has shown that it only takes a few deranged people at the top to do a lot of damage…

  13. Anonymous Says:

    The advice “get out now!” is probably always good – if you treat a country like a stock then certainly Iran would be recommended “to sell”, but so would probably be Israel, and many other countries. Most people not only don’t have such options, but also choose to stay where they were born for some less rational considerations.

    I’m an Israeli, but for some reason I am not very excited about these missiles and rethoric. I’m sure we also have missilies that can reach Iran, and we definitely also have idiots that say things like let’s bomb the Suez canal (although fortunately, our idiots are “only” ministers and not the prime minister). At the moment I don’t think either country has any interest in escalating the situation beyond the current level of mild hostility (Iran supports the Hezbollah, while Israel tries to promote sanctions against Iran).

  14. Scott Says:

    Anonymous: I agree that most people tend to stay where they were born, no matter how bad the situation becomes. The Jews in Europe in the 1930’s are a classic example. The explanation is probably some combination of (i) the difficulty of getting out, (ii) linguistic, family, and cultural ties (what you might have meant by “less rational considerations”), and (iii) the frog-in-slowly-warming-water effect. My advice was not based on the perception that Iran’s “stock is going down” — as you say, that’s true of many other countries — but on the feeling that intellectuals are never safe in a theocracy.

  15. Miss HT Psych Says:

    “intellectuals are never safe in a theocracy.”

    Scott: this is only true if (1) they explicitly or implicitly speak against the current regime, (2) their (past or present) work does not uphold the ideals of the current regime, or (3) they belong to some arbitrary group which is seen as somehow threatening to the regime or its ideals. You used the case of Nazi Germany… many well respected academics (eg. Max Planck) were quite safe throughout the Hitler’s rule in Germany. Actually, Planck is an interesting case, because he is known for both openly opposing Hitler and implicitly supporting him.

    Although, in general, academics tend to be a natural target, as they could make very powerful enemies or allies.

  16. Miss HT Psych Says:

    As a side note, if anyone is interested in reading about academic involvement in Nazi Germany, I highly recommend “From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich” by Gretchen Schafft (2004). The book is academic in nature, but written in a way that a lay person could easily understand. Although, some chapters require a strong stomach…

  17. Scott Says:

    Miss HT: Thanks! You’re quite right about the role of intellectuals in Nazi Germany (there are much more appalling cases than Planck, like Heisenberg and Heidegger). What I meant is that, if you’re an intellectual in the “truest sense,” then you never know in advance whether your words might offend a tyrant! 🙂

    I haven’t read the book you suggest, but this summer I read another hard-to-stomach book about the eugenics movement: War Against The Weak by Edwin Black.

  18. Osias Says:

    Thanks, Scott! I loved Maus and I’m loving this one!

  19. Miss HT Psych Says:

    Scott: I’ll have to check that book out. Should be interesting (in that sick car crash way that eugenics stuff usually is). As part of my research centres around eugenics, I’m always up for something new on the topic

  20. Mohammad Mahdian Says:

    I’ve read both Maus and Perspolis (both volumes). It’s hard for me to pick one of them, they are actually quite similar in style, and both are quite good books. I recommend reading both to everyone.

    Another book from an Iranian-American author that I’d recommend is Funny in farsi. It’s not really about Iran though (it’s mostly about the experiences of an immigrant family in the US).

  21. Mohammad Mahdian Says:

    About your previous post on Ahmadinejad:

    Ahmadinejad was elected through a combination of various factors such as mis-information in the absence of free media, his economic rhetorics, an organized campaign by “basij” (the paramilitary), and lack of real alternatives (many candidates were disqualified). Many of those who voted for him have already changed their mind, but his loyal base of support is fundamentalist and paramilitary groups. Some of the rhetorics, such as “Israel should be wiped off the map” are actually for internal consumption and to strengthen his support among fundamentalists. As Greg said in a comment, these kinds of rhetorics are not new in Iran (e.g., in Friday prayers); what’s new is a president who’s so resolute in his idiocy that re-iterates such things.

    If you’re interested to read more about Iran, there’s a weblog called written mainly by Iranian students in the US and Canada.

  22. Bunny Dee Says:

    It’s always lovely (for me at least) to read stories where the human element is prevalent… No matter what goes on around us, we’re still people, living lives full of joy, tears, shock, laughter and all those other great emotional states we’re gifted with. That’s a trick that makes character-driven storytelling interesting: the antithesis between what is expected and what is actually there – an apparently happy i-have-it-all person with hidden pain, or a person whose life would seem painful to us but he (or she) manages to find joy in the simple things – etcetera etcetera etcetera.

    “It might be the first comic book to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.”
    Well, no, it won’t, I wouldn’t think. Nor will the hundreds of others that are equally “literary” and deep. Comics (especially those termed “graphic novels” by recent critics so as not to scare off your average “intellectual”) have gone a long, long way since the “bang – pow” “silver age”. They have evolved into an art of their own.
    And, just like cave paintings compared to the Mona Lisa, they vary in form and depth – but none of them would ever be made were it not for the world’s need for them.

    People (mostly ones with different cultural/priorities to mine – just like yourself, whose priorities I at least find not only acceptable but noble and admirable, whether I share them or not)tend to compare “graphic novels” as an artform with literature or cinema. Or drawing, even. I beg to differ. It’s a separate field altogether, it just encompasses (or borrows) elements from all of the above, and joins them together (ideally) into something that’s more than the sum of its parts.

    It takes a while to sink in, I understand that. And not everyone cares (or should care) enough to make the distinction. Just like you and your friend Alex claim to work in opposite fields, but to me you’re both “IT guys” (not even internet security guys or whatever it is you do :P) – no offense 😉

    For many more reasons than just the need to be taken seriously, I sincerely hope that it won’t be long before comics are acknowledged as an artform by everyone, and not just us comic geeks. There are good, bad, mediocre, terrible and awesome specimens in every single art, and the same applies here, but its potential is there, ready to be explored by anyone who cares to do so.

    I’m glad you took a plunge into one of my pet realms, glad you appreciated it and hope that you’ll encounter more worthwhile comics (or “graphic novels”). Maus is indeed one I think you’d enjoy. I could suggest, well, another 30 or so titles, but that’s a very good start 🙂