Subversive Style

Resisting the mullahs with nail polish, rock music, and great novels


A teenager's rebellious night on the town, if the town was Tehran in its early days under the mullahs, meant a trip to Kansas. That was a burger joint on Jordan Avenue, a place where the city's upscale sons and daughters set the tone and controlled the culture. Kansas was a redoubt of available coolness, a place where you could hang out, slouch west, and of course risk arrest.

Kansas and its burgers have achieved a certain degree of world fame now, along with other small-scale, daily-life efforts by Tehran's teens to squirm beyond the control of the regime's vice police. That renown comes thanks to the work of Persian-born artist Marjane Satrapi. In her autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (Pantheon), Satrapi raises the question of why the repressive regime let a place like Kansas remain open. Was it to give some kids a place to let off steam? She thinks not. "They probably hadn't the slightest idea what 'Kansas' was," she writes.

Persepolis is in many ways the perfect act of revenge by Satrapi against the Islamism that distorted her childhood, and not merely because she is now free to portray Iran's regime in all its righteous sadism. Satrapi, who now lives and works in France, obviously tells her tales in pictures, violating Islam's anti-iconic strictures. (Actually, Persian Muslims historically ignored those strictures and created impressive art miniatures.) She even portrays God visually, assigning him attributes, which is heretical even without pictures. Indeed, she goes so far as to recount her own childish hopes of attaining prophethood, a thoroughly un-Islamic ambition.

The 33-year-old Satrapi surely must take satisfaction in such revenge, if for no other reason than the manner in which the regime allowed her to "study" art. Female models in her class were forced to pose in chadors that kept them completely hidden. When the students requested a male model—fully dressed, of course—so they could at least see and draw clothed human limbs, a vice cop instructed the students not to look at the model. Maybe Satrapi learned to draw by inference: She has drawn the regime itself, at least as it is revealed in the contorted lives that her characters are forced to endure. Her use of an intentionally naive visual style to tell a story often filled with fear and death only intensifies the power of her tale.

That story is not only about the power of mullahs, of course; it is about the Iran-Iraq war, the difficult lives of dissident leftist intellectuals, and other unhappy aspects of contemporary Iran. Satrapi writes that she doesn't want "those Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various oppressive regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and leave their homeland to be forgotten."

Persepolis, with its concentration on daily experience and the significance of coolness, public hang-outs, rock music, celebrity posters, chain-and-nail necklaces, and indeed of style itself, makes an interesting contrast with another recent work by a Persian expatriate, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House). In Nafisi's memoir, a group of young women gather at the home of a female literature teacher to read and discuss a series of canonical Western books: works by Fitzgerald, James, and Austen as well as Nabokov's notorious novel.

Reading Lolita is a rich work. Nafisi successfully combines the novels under discussion with simultaneous narratives about the tensions of living under a capricious regime—the difficulties her students are experiencing in dealing with the state, their families, and each other—and with flashbacks of her own life and flash-forwards to the very different life she is now living as a professor of literature at Johns Hopkins University. Many of Satrapi's themes about personal style are present in Nafisi's work too: surreptitiously painted nails, the loose lock of hair "accidentally" escaping the hijab, the power of rock music, and so on. Yet for Nafisi, real cultural meaning is usually saved for the canonical novels. Perhaps that is because, as she writes, the regime denied meaning to these works (except as they may have served the regime's ideological ends), and she has made it her purpose to restore and demonstrate literary power.

While reading Lolita, one of Nafisi's students raises a problem that, she says, is bothering her. Like many novels, Lolita tells a sad story. Why, asks the student, does reading it make us happy? If we read such a tale in the newspaper, would we feel the same way? "If we were to write about our lives here in the Islamic Republic of Iran," she asks, "should we make our readers happy?"

Nafisi struggles with the answer. Tragic works, she eventually tells her students, remind us that we need not give in to the limitations of fate; such works are defiant affirmations in the face of life's transience. Authors provide the affirmation by reshaping reality, thus creating new worlds. Great art is a celebration: "The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter." Thus our hearts break for Lolita, "small, vulgar, poetic and defiant orphaned heroine" that she is.

A complex response. Few readers will disagree that aesthetic satisfaction is a response to form, though whether form must rebel and/or affirm seems an invitation to other readerly challenges. Perhaps a different answer involves the usefulness of a work to its reader, the tool a story may become in engaging with the world and even fashioning an identity. Of course, it is not only canonical literature that can play such roles.

Marjane Satrapi responded to the student's questions about tragedy and satisfaction on her own narrative terms. In Persepolis, Satrapi really did "write about our lives here in the Islamic Republic of Iran." Is her work simultaneously defiant and affirmative? Has she employed a form that rebels against its subject matter? Does she break her readers' hearts, and yet make them happy? Readers will answer for themselves. But each answer of yes to Nafisi's assertions concerning art will only raise a different question about catharsis, and about canons.