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Reflective statement:

While reading Persepolis, I was quick to learn that the Sharia laws put in place to enforce the codes of Islam were taken far more extremely in 1980s Iran than what most Muslim countries experience today, and the interactive orals helped broaden contextual considerations as to why that is the case. Concluding in-class discussions and further research, one thing to note was that Iran, before the Islamic revolution (and despite a growing hatred for the shah) was an incredibly progressive country, thanks most to its oil trade inspired and encouraged by foreign influence.

However, following the exoneration of the shah, the Islamic Revolution had Iran go backward, as its revolution reintroduced radical practices that coincided with the old Islam. The Islamic Regime, which at that point emerged as the leading party in the country, tried to control its people by using the Shia Islamic religion and began education programs in an attempt to produce pious followers of the regime. Persepolis shines a light on the beginning of this process. Where once there were Savak (the Shah secret police), now there are ‘mutaween’ (government-authorized police enforcement) and religious Hisbah doctrines to enforce the law ruthlessly.

Where there were once unsegregated schools for both sexes, boys and girls were now separated, all while greatly reducing the quality of education girls received. I was particularly interested in how this drastic change in the amount of religious influence affected the Iranian society, and it seemed that the regime was purposefully planning its people for warfare. Jumping forward to the Iranian-Iraqi war of the 1980s, the process of religious indoctrination in Iranian society grew more intense, allowing the Islamic Regime to gain an army full of religiously devout zealots, dangling the afterlife rewards of martyrdom in front of desperate Iranian citizens to recruit them. This made me realize how the regime depended on war to keep its power, which made me truly able to grasp the level of corruption and tragedy associated with this conflict.

How is the Concept of Martyrdom Presented in Persepolis?

Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel ‘Persepolis’ is an autobiographical graphic novel drawn in black and white that takes the reader through her life as a child growing up in with her family in Tehran, Iran, during the late 1970s and 1980s. There, she lived through the abolishment of the Shah, the introduction of the new Islamic regime, and the war between Iran and Iraq. Within this graphic novel, no shortage of death and tragedy is experienced throughout Iran, and being a Muslim country, the people take the subject of death as a religious passing from one’s life on earth into the afterlife with god. As a result, the theme of martyrdom; or giving up one’s life in the name of his or her belief, is a common concept that appeals to many people presented in the novel. However, many different people ranging from different levels of the societal class used the concept of martyrdom in different ways, but all in the end to receive an advantage of some kind. In Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Persepolis’, the concept and act of martyrdom are presented as a malleable tool of manipulation that is used unjustly, and visual elements such as color pallet, panel arrangement, and facial expression are drawn out by Satrapi to reflect both the effectiveness and the horrible injustice of it.

The early chapter “Persepolis”, set during the outbreak of the Iranian revolution, focuses on revolutionaries who do not die or suffer, but who use dead bodies and portray them as martyrs to gain political dominance. Satrapi uses the contrast of color to visually display the effectiveness of manipulation that the idea of martyrdom. On page 32, the top row of the typical 3 by 3 comic grid is turned into two panels, both of which feature a man who died of cancer being used as a political weapon against the Shah, despite not being affiliated with the anti-Shah riots. In both panels, the man’s body is colored white, while everyone crowed around him is colored black. This color contrast presents the dead man as a holy figure, made to stand out and be worshiped for his “honorable sacrifice” against the corrupt shah. This shows the effectiveness of using cadavers as a tool of manipulation to rally others against the shah, because of the religious undertones martyrdom possesses in a country heavily influenced by Islamic practice.

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When the shah is finally brought down in “The Party”, the chapter opens with a 1 x 3 layout of the grid, resulting in a long panel depicting casualties all stacked up like fallen dominoes, and their faces looking up at the reader (Satrapi 40). Satrapi purposefully draws all the corpses with the same facial expression and in the same position, eliminating the individuality of each corpse and presenting them as a collective. This strip of identity represents how dead people only mattered to the revolution as tools for their benefit, while the faces staring blankly at the reader produce horror, which can make readers resent the actions of people purposefully using death to their advantage. This underlines a major set of perspectives that emerge out of these conflicts, on one end there are actual people dying from the Shah’s army who are honored as actual martyrs, while fake martyrs and revolutionaries are mistreating the dead and taking advantage of mass casualty to push their political agenda. Through this, the political revolution reveals itself to be corrupt and dishonest just like the Shah’s regime.

In the Chapter titled “The Key”, when war finally erupted between Iraq and Iran, many people turned to die a martyrs as a more favorable alternative to living in conflict. The aim of “The Key” is to introduce how the Islamic Regime brainwashes kids into becoming soldiers with the promise they will die as martyrs and be rewarded in the afterlife. Satrapi uses facial expressions and contrasts in vignettes to show how people blindly become martyrs. On page 101 Shahab, Marjane’s cousin, is featured in a middle panel as he recalls what he witnessed as a soldier. Shahab’s facial expression becomes sad and the background of the panel goes black, in contrast with the previous white panels, and continues for the rest of the page, setting a dark tone to portray Shahab’s grief in what he saw. Shahab explains “First they convince them that the afterlife is even better than Disneyland, then they put them in a trance with all their songs. It’s nuts! They hypnotize them and just toss them in battle” (101). Satrapi draws the following set of panels featuring these “soon to be martyr” children in a trance with their eyes closed, showing that they are in such a trance that they are blind to the fact they are being used as tools, which is further emphasized by the darkness of the panels, showing that the boys are even blind to the reality of their situation.

The following page (102) features a rare 2 by-1 panel, where Satrapi uses contrast in panels to portray the difference between the social classes of different children, and what effect manipulation through the concept of martyrdom has on them. The first panel, which takes up 2/3s of the whole page is presented this way to be the clear focus of the page. It shows black silhouettes of the young boys getting blown up with the plastic keys to heaven around their necks. The color black creating silhouettes is used to once again remove the identity of the boys, to represent how to the Islamic Regime they are as important as death fodder because that’s literally how they are depicted in the panel. The keys around their neck also show how the boys have reached a kind of fulfillment, as the panel can be also interpreted as the boys getting blown upwards towards heaven, because by that point it’s all that matters to them after the brainwashing. The panel underneath features by contrast Marjane dancing at her first party.

However, the positions of the kids dancing mirror the silhouettes of the boys in the panel above. Marjane even has holes in her jumper, a reference to the boys getting actual holes put into them, and her chain necklace as opposed to the keys. This ultimately shows how children from Satrapi’s higher social class are not affected by the brainwashing tactic of martyrdom, revealing that it is a tactic used on children of less wealthy social status and the poor. This merely emphasizes the importance that religion plays in the lives of people not surrounded by an abundance of material wealth, but also makes them the perfect target for the Islamic Regime. This page also shows how Satrapi admits she wasn’t fully aware of this reality as a child through the second panel, but by purposefully drawing them similarly several years later she demonstrates her awareness.

As a whole, Persepolis reveals how the concept of martyrdom is used as a malleable tool of manipulation, and through multiple forms of visual comic techniques Marjane Satrapi expresses her own opinion on the concept. Though many of the events involving the enforcement of martyrdom didn’t affect the Satrapi family as it influenced the majority of Iran’s population at the time, Satrapi made considerations on how to display her distaste for it through her visual display of scenes evolving, yet also conveying how dangerously powerful the idea could be.

The concept of martyrdom and how it can be used to gain an advantage as portrayed in the novel always appeared in desperate times and always appealed to desperate people. Whether it’s revolutionaries trying to change a country, an Islamic regime desperately trying to keep its power and win a war, or children killing themselves to escape conflict and assure paradise in the afterlife, regardless of who is the victim or who takes advantage of the idea martyrdom represents, it can be viewed as an appealing alternative. Nonetheless, Satrapi’s style of drawing and storyboarding addresses the victims, whether it’s mistreatment of corpses, or boys being killed in battle, and wants her readers to feel sorry for them.

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