The Globalist Takeaway: Persepolis and “Normal” Life in Iran

by Charlotte Parker:

That there is no US Embassy in Iran, that going to that country would require a hard-to-obtain visa through the Iranian Interests Section of the Embassy of Pakistan, that, according to the US State Department travel website, some American travelers with valid visas have been denied entry at the airport in Tehran—all of these facts shroud the actual living country of Iran with a veil of mystery.

And so, it was refreshing to walk into the Luce Hall auditorium on Thursday night to find it gradually filling with Iranians, there to watch Marjane Satrapi’s animated, autobiographical film, Persepolis. Fereshteh Kowssar, Senior Lector in Persian Language and Literature, bustled about greeting all with two kisses, and most people in the room spoke Farsi amongst themselves. For me, it felt like the animation of a people heard about mostly in connection to revolutionaries or dictators. “The commotion you just saw is part of the Persian tradition,” Kowssar laughed before introducing the film. “You must kiss and say hello to everyone!”

The movie, winner of the 2007 Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, also gives Iran and its people distinctive and sympathetic faces. It opens in 1978, with Satrapi as a spirited child obsessed with Bruce Lee movies and intending to become the ruler of her own galaxy. Her life is “normal” by any American standards. When the people overthrow the Shah in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, she is exposed to an exciting new world of ideals and politics. Then, in 1980, the Iran-Iraq War begins. Soon nationalism and religion—first billed as unifiers of the people—become excuses for the government of Ayatollah Khomeini to suppress any dissent. Satrapi’s uncle Anoush is executed. Friends begin to flee the country. Her family makes wine in the bathtub for the secret parties they throw to “keep themselves sane.” A Republican guard harasses her mother, and that’s when her parents decide to send her to Austria for school. “I just want you to be free!” her mother cries.

Persepolis tells the story of Satrapi, who as a child and through to adulthood struggled to define herself in the midst of upheaval in Iran. (

Much of the rest of the film is simply stories from Satrapi’s life. She goes to school, she fights with her Austrian landlady, she falls in love; she comes back to Iran, faces depression and overcomes it, goes to university and breaks rules and dances all night. In many regards, her stories are universal, and she animates them as sketches and comics with both nostalgia and irony. But there is an undercurrent behind all of them that surfaces after she returns to Iran as a young woman: “I was a stranger in Austria, and now I felt a stranger in my own country,” she says.

In the discussion following the film, an Iranian acquaintance of Kowssar’s brought up the effects of the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War on children. Like Satrapi, he said, many were sent abroad to school, becoming a transnational community of pre-adolescent exiles who felt Iranian everywhere but in Iran. Those who stayed in Iran learned quickly that at home, they could question God and listen to Michael Jackson, but outside those walls one beat one’s chest for the martyrs of the war and had no taste for “Western decadence.” “All of those children have a dual identity,” the man said, “and that can be a negative thing.”

At the end of the talk, Kowssar singled out a group of three young women towards the front of the room and asked them if today, in an Iranian University, a reproduction of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus would be strategically crossed out as it is in a scene in the film. One, now an artist herself, said that things had changed enough and that teachers were not as strictly religious. Another, however, recalled having underground lessons away from the scrutinizing eyes of the university directors.

Kowssar asked, laughing again: “Can you imagine that being the case at Yale?” I certainly can’t. As much as Satrapi tells her story with an eye to the universal, the truth is that “normal” life in Iran is still lived under restrictions. And yet, harsh realities aside, I find myself itching to go to Iran, where in the face of heavy oppression they still dance all night and greet each other with two kisses.

Charlotte Parker is a sophomore in Calhoun College majoring in American Studies and studying Persian. Contact her at