Iran: The Evil State versus the Good People?

Marjane Satrapi’s film Persepolis must have made George Bush and his new ally Nicolas Sarokzy quite happy.  After all, despite Satrapi’s rhetoric against the two leaders, her film’s core argument is one that Bush and Sarkozy have long been busy constructing: the evil state versus the wonderful people.

Aesthetically, Persepolis is a refreshing and beautiful black-and-white animation, but it is also built on a black-and-white viewpoint of Iran.

Satrapi’s world is divided into two very separate groups: you are either with Marjane, in which case you’d are a nice, warm human being with properly drawn features; or you are against Marjane, and therefore either a black spectre with no human face features or an angry robot who represents the Iranian state.  There is no one in between in Marjane’s world — no shade of grey between this dichotomy of evil state versus good people.

This is not much different from Bush’s and Sarkozy’s official line on Iran.

“We admire your rich history, your vibrant culture, and your many contributions to civilization,” Bush said in 2006.  “The greatest obstacle to this future is that your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation’s resources to fund terrorism, and fuel extremism, and pursue nuclear weapons.”

Sarkozy said in 2007 that Iran represents “the most important problem on the international scene.”  He added, however, that it was important to distinguish between the Iranian regime and the people of Iran.  He stressed that it was crucial to “assure the people of our respect.”

This binary logic, on which Persepolis is also built, might look like an improvement on the all-evil logic that was previously used in Hollywood to depict nations resistant to the United States.  (In the early 1990s, Sally Field and Alfred Molina starred in Not Without My Daughter which made sure all aspects of Iranian life and culture were vilified.)  But in fact the new logic is far more dangerous.

The narrative is simple: an evil state has taken its good people hostage and is planning to destroy the planet with its dangerous weapons.  The good states now must both liberate these innocent people from their evil rulers and remove the threat of such weapons by toppling those rulers.  But you can’t liberate a people if they are as evil as their state, so you always need to have good people.  Hence the never-ending wave of memoirs by Iranian women whom we are supposed to liberate, starting with the controversial memoir by Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran.

In fact, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in 2003 that the Iraqi people were in large measure hostages to the vicious regime of Saddam Hussein and continued that “with a minimal loss of life on the part of the Iraqi people, because it’s not a war against the Iraqi people, it’s a war against the Iraqi regime,” the regime would be gone.  He emphasized that it is “important that the people of Iraq be liberated.”

Satrapi makes no effort to break this stereotypical image of Iran,  even though she knows — and shows in the film — how the middle and lower-class Iranian rulers came to power after a massive revolt against a deeply corrupt and tyrannical monarchy and that, despite the existential threats against the new state ever since, its political system is fairly representative, fragmented, and diverse.  (Where in Europe or North America can the son of a blacksmith suddenly ascend to presidency out of nowhere and unhesitatingly start holding the rich and the powerful accountable?)

There are two other aspects of its narrative, which makes Persepolis even more of an instrument of the continuous worldwide psychological operation against Iran.

Satrapi’s film shows her family as a typical Iranian family and symbolizes herself as one of the several million Iranian women who are continually being oppressed by the evil government.

The more accurate narrative is that Satrapi’s family, with their leftist secular leanings, their wealth, and their Western way of life, can only represent a tiny fraction of the entire Iranian population.   That’s perhaps why she reduces an eight-year bloody defense by Iran against the Euro-American backed Iraqi invasion in the 1980s, right after the Iranian revolution, to a pointless mass suicide mission of young Iranian boys who were fooled by their rulers’ use of plastic keys to heaven.  (Ironically, the part in the book about the Western-backed use of chemical weapons by Iraq against Iranian soldiers was dropped from the film.)

The film also never points out that Marjane is not only exaggerating in showing Iran as a police state where for every woman who runs in the street or touches a male hand in a car, there are at least a team of bearded, angry policemen who suddenly appear on the scene and warn them.  Even the Taliban never managed to be that fast and efficient.

But worse is that, while it is true that the Iranian society and obviously its rulers were less tolerant of dissent and were more religiously and socially conservative 20 years ago when much of Marjane’s story happens, the film fails to remind the viewer that today’s Iran is remarkably different from those days.

Anyone who has visited Iran in the past years (Rageh Omaar, for instance) can testify how a young and curious population has opened up the society and made the also younger rulers more relaxed in terms of life and culture — and this flexibility and pragmatism is mainly why it has managed to survive for almost 30 years now.  But Persepolis sells us the story of an Iran that doesn’t exist any more.

Hossein Derakhshan, aka hoder, is a blogger and journalist, currently pursuing a post-graduate degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London.  A different version of this article was published in the Guardian on 15 May 2008.

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