The Mind and the Heart of Iranian Women
Two stories about lives of women in Iran have been loudly heard in past years: Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis. They are interesting for their similarities and contrasts.
Two female Iranian voices have been loudly heard in the world of literature during past few years: first came Azar Nafisi in 2003 with her bestselling book Reading Lolita in Tehran. And then, in 2007, came Marjane Satrapi with the award-winning movie Persepolis based on her book of memoirs from 2000. There are a lot of similarities between the stories of these two women: Both grew up in Iran, both have studied in a western country, both have returned to Iran, just to flee the country for one last time. And finally, both of them have put a pen to paper to write about their lives in Iran, about the country and its people, about the revolution, the war with Iraq and the oppressive regime. But this is where the similarities end and the differences start. The first and most obvious difference being: one wrote her story and the other one drew it.
Further differences show up right upon starting to read the books. It is this game of comparing and contrasting that makes parallel reading the work of those two women interesting. Whereas they are both criticising the Islamic regime in their home country and showing a painful picture of what it means to be a woman under such a regime, there is one major difference: Nafisi does this with her mind and Satrapi with her heart. Maybe this is the reason why Nafisi faced strong criticism - much can be forgiven to the heart.
Reading Lolita in Thehran has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over one hundred weeks and has been translated into thirty-two languages. The fact that Nafisi is an academic and that she had studied literature explains the complex construction of her book. Her book works on three levels: descriptions of every day life in Tehran, stories about meetings of her book club in which she discussed with her students the western literature forbidden in Iran, and finally, the analysis of those books. The book is divided into four sections, each with its theme. In Lolita, the main theme is oppression –and it describes how revolutionary guards assert their authority. Gatsby chapter is about the dream, in this case the Iranian dream of revolution and the way it was shattered for Nafisi. The James chapter is about uncertainty which totalitarian mindsets have a strong aversion towards. Austen is about the women’s choice.
The book covers Nafisi’s return from the studies in the USA to Iran in 1981, the years of teaching at the university in Tehran, the years of her book club and finally how she fled the country in 1997 to start a life in USA. And as much as Satrapi is bound by her medium, a black-and-white cartoon, to keep herself short and simple, Nafisi’s 343 pages of a book allow her descriptions to be detailed, analytical and colourful. She will take you, tuck you directly into a scene by describing it precisely and then still analyse the same scene for you. You will read about how it is to be arrested and spend time in an Iranian jail, how a house-raiding looks like, how it is to dare and reject wearing a headscarf. These in-depth descriptions of life in Iran will give you a feeling you are learning all about the life as a woman under a regime.
Still, despite its success in attracting many readers in the west, Reading Lolita in Tehran has not been successful with Iranians who believe Nafisi unjustly caricatures the country. The book has earned some strong criticism by Columbia professor Hamid Dabashi, who saw it as propaganda for the Bush administration. Literature professor Fatemeh Keshavarz, who wrote a book entitled Jasmines and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran, blames Nafisi's book for allowing for "many damaging misrepresentations" of Iran and its people. Nafisi’s second book, Things I’ve Been Silent About, which talks about her growing up in Iran, has not followed the success of the first.
Satrapi has not been silent about anything. Persepolis is a graphic memoir recounting her rebellious childhood in Iran, her high-school education at the Lycée Français in Vienna and her short return back to Iran after which she based herself in France in 1993. The memoir is divided into two books: The first is told from the viewpoint of a young girl making sense of a difficult world around her, and in the second book, she is a young woman trying to make sense of herself. After the unexpected success of the book, which sold in millions of copies, in 2007, Satrapi turned Persepolis into a film with the help of the French director Vincent Paronnaud. The film won numerous awards and was nominated for the Oscar in the category of foreign film, and won a jury prize in Cannes.
Satrapi’s charm lies in her simple, childlike-style mixed with honesty and self-criticism. And although she draws in black-and-white, she does not, in contrary to Nasifi, show the world in black and white. While she is scathing about the hypocrisies and cruelties of Iran's theocracy, she is equally critical of George Bush's Christian fundamentalism. In Persepolis, she will tell about the history of Iran, the problems with the regime, the meaning of war, the search for own identity. All of this is served directly, from the guts, without much construction or analysis. This is why her book has the power to touch emotionally and provoke both laughter and tears. Instead of feeding the reader a reality, she will open a space for the reader to create his own experience of a situation. Her talent for distilling complex stories into strongly moving, beautiful vignettes tend to inspire self-examination in her readers.
Following the success of Persepolis, Strapi went on to write two more books: Embroideries and Chicken with Plums. Embroideries is a Persian version of Sex & the City – it describes a group of nine women drinking tea after lunch. One story leading to the other, these no-nonsense, witty, honest Iranian ladies start discussing sex and relationships. The book is a hilarious read. In Chicken with Plums she talks about what makes life worth living through the story of her great-uncle Nasser Ali Khan, who takes to bed after realizing that he'll never be able to find an instrument to replace his beloved, broken tar.
Two different voices, two different lives, two different approaches, one main topic: women’s lives under an Islamic regime and finding a way to freedom. Let more of them be heard!