Marjane Satrapi: Of madness and mullahs

Marjane Satrapi's spikily satirical comic-strip memoir about growing up in revolutionary Iran is now being filmed. She talks to Geoffrey Macnab
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Not long after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the teenage Marjane Satrapi was walking through the streets of Tehran when she was stopped by two black-clad women members of the Guardians of the Revolution. The women didn't like her outfit. Although Satrapi was wearing a headscarf, she also had on sneakers, jeans and a baseball cap. Worst of all was the Michael Jackson badge on her chest.

When the women complained about her "whorish" and "decadent" garb, she replied quick as a flash that the man on her badge wasn't Michael Jackson but Malcolm X, "the leader of the black Muslims in America". The women still threatened to denounce her, but Satrapi burst into tears and claimed that her stepmother would burn her with the clothes iron and send her off to live in an orphanage. The stony-faced fundamentalists let her go.

This incident is recounted in Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Satrapi's comic-book memoir. It sums up perfectly what makes Satrapi such a distinctive writer and personality. She is fast-thinking, spiky and very humorous. She is not afraid of being rude.

When I met her at a lunch in Cannes to announce the movie version of Persepolis, she was openly dismissive of my questions about why Kathleen Kennedy (Steven Spielberg's producer and one of the most influential women in Hollywood) wanted to work with her. "I don't know - ask her," was the gist of her response. Inquiries about the budget of the film were dismissed in an even more peremptory fashion.

Thankfully, she was far more forthcoming about the reasons why she wrote her graphic memoir. Persepolis has earned some glowing reviews since its first publication in 2003. Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, called it "a superb piece of work". Other plaudits were: "A mighty achievement", "delectable", "brilliant", "dazzling" and "utterly fascinating".

What is most arresting about the book is how unexpected it is. Here is an account of the lead-up to the Iranian Revolution and its immediate aftermath from the perspective of a young girl who loves Kim Wilde and Iron Maiden.

We're used to Iranian movies from great directors such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jarar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami - movies that look at contemporary Iranian life in a quizzical, mildly provocative fashion. But Satrapi's storytelling voice is very different: brash, well-informed, full of political and pop cultural references - and drawn in black and white in a deceptively naive comic style. Throughout, humour is foregrounded: the funniest bits often come at the darkest moments.

"Humour is a big part of the Persian culture," Satrapi declares when asked about the incongruously ironic and witty storytelling style. Whether it's her grandmother pretending to be diabetic so she can rush inside the house and flush away the hidden booze before it is discovered by the revolutionary guards, or Marjane pretending that she prays 12 times a day to prove her fundamentalist credentials, the book exposes the absurdities of life under the Ayatollah. "When you go through war and revolution, the only thing you can do is laugh. It's a way of surviving. Plus, humour is the most subversive weapon... and I am not a very serious person."

Her own character, the precocious little Marx-quoting nine-year-old, comes across like an Iranian version of the equally smart and self-righteous Lisa in The Simpsons. "I was very intelligent, dear," she says of herself as a child. "Also, I had parents who wanted to make us into future intellectuals. Everything in the house was prepared for this. I could have all the books I wanted."

Satrapi has blue blood. Her family is directly descended from the Persian royal family. Her great-grandfather was an emperor and her grandfather was a prince. (All his property was confiscated by the Shah.)

She is at pains to point out that this is not quite as impressive a lineage as it may first appear. "My great-great-grandfather had 1,000 wives. My great-grandfather had 100 wives. Imagine all the kids they would produce with all those wives! If you multiply these kids with the numbers of generations, you find out you have tens of thousands of princes and princesses coming from Iran."

Her parents' and grandparents' generations were among the first to study abroad. Ironically, these young Iranians from aristocratic backgrounds often soaked up Marxist doctrine abroad and became prime movers in the campaign to overthrow the Shah.

Her parents were radicals, but that didn't stop them leading bourgeois lives. Satrapi's father, an engineer, drove a Cadillac. In the days before the revolution, her family was comfortably well off, although not super-rich. That is to say, her relatives didn't have their own jets or a string of palatial houses. "In Iran [before the revolution], when people were rich, they were really, really rich," she recalls of the days of oil-fuelled conspicuous consumption before the Shah was toppled.

Satrapi blames Britain for many of Iran's current political problems. Not only did the British force Reza Shah (seen as a potential Nazi ally) to abdicate in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1941; Britain was also behind the 1953 CIA-backed "coup" against the government of the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh, who had nationalised Iran's oil industry.

After Mossadegh's removal, the Shah became all-powerful. "The idea came from Churchill, who is a big hero in Europe but for us, he is the nastiest man in the world. He provoked this coup d'état," Satrapi says.

She is acidic, too, in her criticism of Tony Blair's policies in Iran and Iraq, and reckons that the British have caused nothing but trouble in the region. "But, at the same time, you have The Who and The Rolling Stones... All this culture! You have Shakespeare, you have all these beautiful things. I make a separation between the British people and even the British kitchen - because I love fish and chips - and the British Government."

Satrapi left Iran for Vienna (where she thoroughly miserable) when she was 14. Her parents had sent her to Austria for her safety, but her schoolmates seemed to see her as the embodiment of the fundamentalism she had fled.

She returned home, but was no happier. Back in Iran, she was forced to live behind the veil in a society she despised. When she was 24, she moved to Paris, where she is still based.

It is now more than six years since she has been home to Iran. She acknowledges she is still too fretful about her personal safety to return. Memories are still horribly fresh of what happened to Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian-Iranian journalist who died in Iranian custody three years ago. "She was killed and the guy who killed her was promoted and nobody has been accused," Satrapi notes.

Nonetheless, she still retains fond memories of the idealism that originally drove the 1979 overthrow of the Shah. "The end of democracy in my country was not 1979," she says, "it was 1953, when Mossadegh was pulled from power. That killed the dream of democracy, not only in Iran but in the whole region."

Nor is she sympathetic to figures such as the controversial Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who equates Islamism with Nazi fascism. "She is just a dumbass!" Satrapi exclaims. "I don't know why people, when they become older, become stupider. OK, in Iran, we have a government that's completely out of its mind. In one way, they're completely crazy. On the other hand, the United States is just making shit in the whole world. What credibility do they have to say to a country, 'Don't do that'? They have never guaranteed peace anywhere in the world...

"I believe it is a very stupid idea to believe that we are divided into Muslim and Christian or West and East," she continues, adding that the only real divisions are between fanatics (whether Christian, Muslim or Buddhist) and moderates.

"What are the resemblances between me and a mullah from my country?" she continues. "What are the resemblances between a mullah from my country and George Bush? George Bush is God's best friend. They [the mullahs] are God's best friends, too. George Bush is going to fight the axis of evil. They are going to fight the big Satan."

This little tirade over, Satrapi acknowledges that it can be frustrating that she is regarded as a political commentator as much as an artist. "It happens always that my artistic work is completely forgotten and the political questions come over and over again."

She cites Art Spiegelman as one of her key creative influences. His comic book memoir, Maus, about his father, a Holocaust survivor, convinced her that it was possible to broach meaningful subjects in graphic novel form.

Satrapi's attitude toward her new homeland France is affectionate but predictably barbed. "Instead of the French government making a law against the veil, the question I would ask is why those kids want to wear the veil," she says. "There is a crisis of identity. Whose fault is that? The French are a big pain in the ass. They are all the time shouting and going on strike, but at least that means they are alive... I like them and hate them for the same reasons. I like the smell of the nasty cheese and also I can smoke where I want."

Work is now under way on the animated version of Persepolis, with Satrapi overseeing a team of 85 animators. "All my life I've worked with myself - and I found that unbearable," she says. The entire movie is hand-drawn. Satrapi disapproves of computer animation, which she thinks becomes quickly outmoded. "What the hand can make is never dated."

Whatever Satrapi's reservations about George Bush, she is relishing her first brush with Hollywood. "Americans can be enthusiastic and that's why I like them so much." When her film is released, she hopes it might just teach audiences in the West a little more about Iran than they know from the TV reports they see about "fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism".

The film version of ' Persepolis' will be released next year. ' Persepolis 1' and ' Persepolis 2' are published by Jonathan Cape