Wednesday, January 24, 2018

"It's fear that makes us lose our conscience. It's also what transforms us into cowards." Lessons from Iran For The US From Graphic Novel Persepolis

I've recently finished Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  It's one of the graphic novels I got at Pulp Fiction in LA.

The time I've spent in authoritarian countries, particularly China, has given me a sense that there are always spaces where people find ways to make things work, despite the official rules.  For instance, my Chinese students surprised me when I asked about how many siblings they had, then corrected myself when I remembered the one-child policy.  Except, they corrected my correction, because more than half the class had siblings, a one as many as five.  Despite the policy there were ways people got around it.

So I wasn't surprised by Satrapi's portrayal of modern life in Iran.  Some I'd heard about before - the way people dress in public and in private.  I remember when the reality of Iran first hit me - watching a movie about a widow raising her daughter going out to the car and using her automatic key to unlock the door.  Yes, in many ways, Iran is a modern country.

I was struck by her fearlessness.  We learn in the book it comes through her genes.  Her grandfather had been a hero in difficult times and her parents raise her to be herself and not what the culture wants her to be.  And her grandmother is an important role model.

But fearlessness in Iran is a lot different from fearlessness in the US.  Here our protests might cost us our jobs, even get us into prison at the extreme, (and today, get trolled, sometimes viciously).  But in Iran, torture and death are real possibilities.  Back in 2006 I met Iranian philosopher, Ramin Jahanbegloo,  in India where he was teaching after having been arrested at the Tehran airport on his way to a conference in Brussels.  He'd recently been released from prison after an international protest against his arrest.  At the time he was out on bail.  My post at the time about that encounter was brief at his request.

So I look at Iranians as good sources for information on how to survive in authoritarian regimes.  We aren't there yet, and hope it doesn't happen, but here are a couple of inspirational lessons from Satrapi's book.

The book is autobiographical and by the time we get this part, Satrapi has lived a few years abroad, on her own, in Austria and returned to Iran.  She has a boyfriend, though that is not publicly acknowledged, and the two of them have been accepted to art school.  School is interrupted one day by a convocation and all the students must attend. [All the images should get sharper if you click on them.]

[For blind readers, whose computers can't read text in images I'm also offering text.]
"Once in the amphitheater, we discovered the reason for our convocation.  The administration had organized a lecture with the theme of "Moral and Religious Conduct," to show us the right path.
"We can't allow ourselves to behave loosely!  It's the blood of our martyrs  which has nourished the flowers of our republic.  To allow oneself to behave indecently is to trample on the blood of those who gave their lives for our freedom.  Also, I am asking the young ladies present here to wear less-wide trousers and longer head-scarves.  You should cover your hair well, you should not wear makeup, you should  , , ,]

I'd note that invoking the blood of our martyrs happens here in the US too.  From  a letter to the Desert News:
"I completely disagree with kneeling before the flag. It disrespects all the soldiers, Marines and pilots who gave their lives to make America free."

When the lecture is over . . .

"Does anyone have any questions?  If not, this meeting is over."
"Sir, I have a question.  You say that our head-scarves are short, that our pants are indecent, that we make ourselves us, etc.

"But as a student of art, a good portion of my time is spent in the studio.  I need to be able to move freely to be able to draw.  A longer head-scarf will make the task even more difficult.
As for our trousers, you criticize them for being too wide even though they effectively hide our shape.  Knowing that these trousers are in vogue right now I ask the question is religion defending our physical integrity or is it just opposed to fashion?"

"You don't hesitate to comment on us, but our brothers present here have all shapes and sizes of haircuts and clothes.  Sometimes, they wear clothes so tight that we can see everything.
Why is it that I, as a woman, am expected to feel nothing when watching these men with their clothes sculpted on but they, as men, can get excited by two inches less on my head-scarf?"    "OHHHHH!!"
What is it that causes some people to stand up for justice for themselves and others, while other people pull back and say nothing?  Or even worse, attack those who stand up?

Then, after the lecture.

"After the Lecture"
"You're really courageous"
"Bravo what frank speaking!"

You've been summoned by the Islamic commission... good luck!"
"Is it serious?"
"I really don't know"
"The director of our college had studied in the United States and remained quite secular"

"What is it?"
"I've been summoned by the Islamic Commission"
"Oh shit!"
"Wish me luck."

 ". . .But to my pleasant surprise, my executioner proved to be the "true religious" man.  The one who had passed me on the ideological test."
"So Miss Satrapi . .  always saying what you think . .   It's good!  You're honest, but you are lost."
"Read the sacred text.  You'll see that wearing the veil is synonymous with emancipation."
"If you say so."

"It is not I who says it, it's God . . . I'm going to give you a second chance.  This time, you're not expelled.  In exchange, I am asking you to imagine the uniform adapted to the needs of the students in your college.  Nothing extravagant, you understand."
"Of  course."

So, she redesigns the uniform slightly, and life goes on.  And she gets congratulated by her grandmother.  

"This little rebellion reconciled my grandmother and me."

Grandmother:  "It's fear that makes us lose our conscience.  It's also what transforms us into cowards. You had guts!  I'm proud of you!"

So let's all remember that in the long run, standing up for what is right and just is more important than keeping out of trouble.  Yes, losing jobs is a big thing.  But I used to tell my students that if they wanted to maintain their ethics, they needed to sock away a year's salary, so they could do the right thing when the time came.  

I'd note another example of people standing up to authoritarian government comes in "How Russia's homoerotic "Satisfaction" became a nationwide meme of solidarity" - by Masha Gessen,  Putin biographer and astute Russian/American.  Links to videos included.


  1. So many thoughts on these (very related) subjects, so little need to write about it. I'll leave it at that.

    Good advice to your past students, btw. Cheers!

    1. yes. . . btw, took my granddaughter to see Paddington. I thoroughly enjoyed it. She looked away often and spend most of the movie on my lap for protection.

    2. Yes, the movie would be a bit too intense for a young one. It was too much for our bears, who had insisted on coming along.

      Moving on to a general comment on this, that, or another thing, I wanted to send what's below along for some time. It's a bit of American cultural history that reveals the ways in which the USA never really overcame its civil war as many still fly the stars and bars. Why? we ask.

      A traditional song performed Hoyt Axton, courtesy Youtube:

      Oh, I'm a good old Rebel,
      Now that's just what I am;
      And for this Yankee Nation,
      I do not give a Damn
      I'm glad I fought again her,
      I only wish we'd won.
      I ain' ask any Pardon,
      For anything I've done.

      I hates the Yankee nation
      and everything they do,
      I hates the Declaration
      of Independence, too
      I hates the glorious Union
      tis drippin' with our blood
      I hates their striped banner,
      I fit it all I could.

      I rode with Robert E. Lee,
      For three years, thereabout.
      Got wounded in four places
      And I starved at Point Lookout.
      I caughts the rheumatism
      O' camping in the snow.
      But I killed a chance of Yankees
      And I'd like to kill some mo'.

      Three hundred thousand Yankees
      Is stiff in Southern dust;
      We got three hundred thousand
      Befo' they conquered us.
      They died of Southern fever
      And Southern steel and shot;
      I wish they were three million
      Instead of what we got.

      I can't take up my musket
      And fight' em now no mo',
      But I ain't gona love' em,
      Now that is certain sure
      And I don't want no pardon
      For what I was and am
      I won't be reconstructed,
      And I do not give a damn.

      Oh, I'm a good old Rebel,
      Now that's just what I am;
      For this Yankee Nation,
      I do not give a Damn
      I'm glad I fought again her,
      I only wish we'd won.
      I ain' ask any Pardon,
      For anything I've done.

      I ain' ask any Pardon,
      For anything I've done.


      Powerful stuff (and read some of the comments from folks responding to it). Many who raise the 'Rebel Flag' do so knowing its purpose. It's far more than slavery or racism as it was and is about politics and a very class-based way of life. It was powerfully rooted in economics then and it still is now. Slavery in America is much what was known as colonialism elsewhere round the world.

      Britain today have the same kind of divisions echoing from England's Civil War in the 1600s. A nation doesn't forget these divisions. Here, we're fighting its proxy way with the EU: Self-determination vs further integration.

      Good luck to both nations!

  2. So many people, I regret, do not see where Trump and his enabling minions and financial supporters are heading. And, they think we who can imagine it are fear-mongering and worrying for nothing.

    McCarthyism happened. Fascism happened. Believing it can't happen again is folly. That 5,000,000 women marched last Saturday is extremely heartening. We are not alone.

    But Huxley was right, people are basically too self-absorbed and "won't bother looking up from their screens" to notice or

    1. We'll get past this. We'll start talking. And like Satrapi, we will find allies in unexpected places. We have to diffuse the tension. I'm sure there are Trump voters who have regrets. But people don't want to admit they were wrong - in this climate it gives 'the win' to the other side. We can be understanding of people's feelings without agreeing with their thinking. When everyone is hurting - like a bad divorce - respectful conversations are hard to have. Asking questions - not loaded rhetorical ones - like Satrapi did about the rules is a good way to get others to explain their logic.


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