Persepolis, The Story of a Childhood: Deep Dive

Ah yes, World History, the high school class determined to fit the entirety of global events into fifty minute chunks over the course of about six months. You already know the drill: start with the history before history. Flourish in the Fertile Crescent and Mesopotamia. Jump over to the Indus River Valley. Take a long, long time focusing on Ancient Greece and Rome (pot shards and vomitoria, anyone?) before skimming over the Middle East, North Africa, and the Dynasties of China. Make it to the Middle Ages in Europe and spend several weeks talking about the Black Death and Crusades. Skip ahead to the Renaissance, snore through the Reformation, and finally make it home to the Americas. Spend the rest of the school year in the Americas. There may have been a few important things left out. Just a few. Okay, a whole lot.

With all that history crammed into one year, is it any wonder that we missed some things? For some of us, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood was our first introduction to the Islamic Revolution, sometimes called the Iranian Revolution. We see author Marjane Satrapi lead us through her childhood and straight into adolescence while struggling with the devastating effects of war with Iraq. Her portrait of daily life, through her childish perspective, gave us a window into history. Satrapi went on to write a second graphic memoir, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, in which she returns to Iran after graduation and comes face to face with the changes her country has undergone.

But this is just one person’s snapshot memory of a moment in history. While we obviously can’t cover it in the depth it deserves, we can provide additional information for further research. The Islamic Revolution spanned from January 1978 to April 1979 in the Muslim-majority country of Iran. It was the last of three major revolutions that took place during that century. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, son of the previous Shah Reza Khan, was put in power by Britain and the Soviet Union for fear that his father would give the country’s oil to Germany. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, or simply the Shah, highly supported the westernization of his country. He assisted the United States and Britain carry out a coup against his own government (Operation Ajax) and, while there was an initial boom in the economy and social services, people began to notice that wealth increasingly went to the Shah and the western oil companies that backed him.

When the economy took a turn in the 1970s, more Iranians became unhappy with the Shah. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who would later become the face of the opposition, stood out in particular. Khomeini was not impressed with the initial increase in wealth or the Shah’s treatment of the Shi’a clergy. He developed a system of government called the Guardianship of the Jurist in which experienced clergy (including himself) would rule. With his ideas becoming more popular and the downward spiral of the economy, the stage was set for the Islamic/Iranian Revolution. Democrats, the Shi’a community, and the youth of Iran all supported Khomeini and began to host public protests.

The protests became more violent as the Iranian army and the revolutionaries clashed. Eventually, many army members joined the revolutionaries to oppose the Shah. In the face of continuously decreasing support, the Shah surrendered and fled the country. The various political pressures that were left eventually created a new Iranian constitution, which included an elected president and prime minister. It also included a Supreme Leader of Iran, a position held-for-life and given to Khomeini. The Islamic Republic has been in place ever since.

As a whole, history has been whitewashed and Westernized to the point of being almost unrecognizable. We encourage you to check out some of the following books for more snapshots, fictionalized or factional, of Iran’s history: Disoriental by Ňgar Djavadi; To Keep the Sun Alive by Rabeah Ghaffari; They Said They Wanted Revolution: A Memoir of my Parents by Neda Toloui-Semnani; Taking Cover: One Girl’s Story of Growing Up During the Iranian Revolution by Nioucha Homayoonfar; and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar. This summary was just a small sliver of the social, economical, political, and cultural events that took place before, during, and after this moment in history. There’s always time to add another semester to your history lessons.

This blog is created by Hannah and Ella in conjunction with the These Books Made Me podcast, a Prince George’s County Memorial Library System production. Check out the corresponding episode, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you normally listen to podcasts. Or you can simply click on the link to the episode to listen.

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