How Iranians see Persepolis

 

A week after the release of the political comedy Persepolis, three Iranian women who have left their home country give their reaction to the film. Does it reflect what it is to be Iranian in the West? Or is it simply one person's perspective on the Middle East?

SHAPPI KHORSANDI
The British-Iranian comedian Shappi Khorsandi was born in Iran in the 1970s. She moved with her family to London at the age of three-and-a-half, and was unable to return due to the issuing of a death warrant against her father, a political satirist, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Shappi came to prominence on the London comedy circuit in 2005 with her show Asylum Speaker, dealing with the experience of being Iranian in Britain. She plays the Kilkenny Cat Laughs Comedy festival which is on from May 29th to June 2nd. For details see 
www.smithwickscatlaughs.com

"The book of Persepolis, which I read in 2005, had a profound effect on me. It was the impetus for my show Asylum Speaker, which was my breakthrough act. Watching the film this week, there were so many parts where I had to swallow hard because the emotion was so great.

"My situation was different from Marjane's in that I didn't do much growing up in Iran, and when I left, I left with my parents. Also, her family came from aristocracy. Mine did not. But Marjane's grandmother with that naughty sense of humour was very like my own.

"When I was young there were so many people we knew in Marjane's situation. We always had young women staying with us whom my parents had taken under their wing. Everyone in Iran who could afford to go abroad did. The weird thing was that people who were both pro- and anti-Shah emigrated together, which was a bit awkward. Near my house was a restaurant where political debate was forbidden because so much crockery was being broken.

"It's both a personal and a political film but it's driven by the personal. The political is very much a backdrop. The first person who ever told me about the book was a French woman in a nightclub toilet. And then the British comedian Josie Long told me about it, and I was astounded that people who were not Iranian were interested in this story.

"Marjane's experience was quite typical, I think. Typical of the people who were able to leave Iran anyway. I would say that hers is a modern way of thinking, and very normal. Iranians as a rule are very broad-minded people, though that is always misrepresented.

"My stand-up act is all about being a Londoner and being Iranian. People are always asking if my parents mind, presuming that they're backward and small-minded - other Iranians never ask me that because they understand that our people welcome outspokenness. And my father was a satirist, so it was in my family. He'd probably have been more disappointed if I had become a lawyer.

"Growing up, I was quite ignorant of Iran myself. When my Iranian cousins came to England they were frustrated at my questions. I used to think they had to step over dead bodies on their way to school.

"Like Marjane, when I was a teenager I often denied I was from Iran. A lot of teenagers are uncomfortable in their own skin. Iranian wasn't a cool thing to be. Greek was cool. Iranian wasn't. I remember saying that my grandfather was Russian - he had spent time in Russia. And the National Front were quite big in my school and so if I met someone who was a bit racist I would tell them I was half-English and half-Indian - so that I wouldn't get beaten up.

"The smoking references in the film are spot-on. My dad was always a smoker, and Iranians are heavy smokers. I once met Marjane Satrapi, and she's quite a militant smoker. She blew smoke in my face. She was very funny. And I'd say very French.

"In the film, Marjane feels great pride at having revolutionary relatives. For me, the feeling was more one of sadness. My uncle was shot dead at a demonstration when he was 19. He was my mother's brother. They called him over to the car and he spoke to them. As he walked away they shot him in the back. They also shot a little kid.

"I haven't been back since I was about four and a half. My friends go all the time to go skiing, but with my dad's background, I couldn't go back and expect to hold on to my British passport. Or I might not be allowed to leave, with all that I've said in my stand-up act. A Canadian-Iranian photographer went back a few years ago and he just disappeared."

SAHAR
Sahar left Iran in 2001 and came to live in Dublin. She is married to an Iranian whom she met in Ireland

"This film was very similar to my own experience, and that of most of my age group. I was nine at the time of the 1979 revolution, the same age as Marjane, the character in the film. I remember the time before the revolution.

"We had lots of freedom under the Shah regime. Even though he was a dictator, everybody could drink like in Europe, or go to the beach in a swimming costume. There was more personal freedom, but no political freedom, no freedom to talk.

"After the revolution everything changed. If you wanted to have a party you had to make sure there was no noise, because agents of the regime would come into the house and make trouble.

"Every single thing in that film is true. There's a part when she is stopped in the street for wearing Nikes. That happened to me and my friends. They arrested me once because I had short trousers on - they weren't even that short, but short enough for some women to take me off in a car and question me about where I had got my Western clothes.

"I left in 2001 and came to Ireland. I had been married for eight months and had got a divorce - again like Marjane in the film. A divorced woman can do nothing in Iran. She cannot even rent a place.

"In Ireland most people thought I was Spanish or Italian. The people I worked with didn't know where Iran was, or knew nothing about it. They would ask if we drove cars or rode camels.

"Like Marjane, who in the film moves to the West and pretends to be French, I often prefer to say I am not Iranian. If I do it's always the start of a long conversation. People ask if you grew up in a house, if you went to school. Of course I grew up in a house. Of course I went to school. I got a bachelor degree when I was 22.

"It was quite a political film in that Marjane comes from a political family, and a middle-class family. My family is also very political. Many of my mother's family also spent time in prison. It was not unusual in the years before the revolution for a parent in a family to be communist or a member of another party.

"Afterwards, many of the intellectuals and educated people left. Even if they had a big house, they just left it. They might have a better life in Iran but they left just to be able to relax, to talk freely. In the end, that's more important than money.

"But the country has changed a lot. Every time I go back, I notice more changes. With the internet, the authorities can't stop young people getting the latest fashions. Women will go out wearing make-up now or wearing a tighter coat. They still aren't supposed to, but now they just do it."

MIRYAM
Miryam left her family in Iran in 2004 and moved to Ireland with her husband

"This was the first time I had seen an Iranian film in the cinema in Ireland. I didn't expect it to be a cartoon, but I really liked that about it. And some of it was very funny. And I didn't expect it to be so popular: the cinema was packed.

"I went to the cinema with my friends and my husband. I could hear some Persian voices but I'm not sure how many Iranians there were at the movie. We didn't talk to them because, well, you just don't talk to people at a cinema.

"I really enjoyed the film. I wasn't born at the time of the Shah regime, but from what I have learned from other people, everything in this movie was true."

"My family is not very like Marjane's. For one thing in my family we don't drink alcohol, but we do love to go to parties.

"The war against Iraq features a lot in the film, but I was much less affected by the war than she was. I remember it on TV, but because I lived in the city of Esfahan, we weren't so badly affected.

"My favourite part of the film was when Marjane got married. She had been friends with the man at first but they decided to marry because life was hard for an unmarried couple in Iran. And later, when her husband was not interested anymore and just wanted to look at movies all day, she had this great chat with her grandmother who said life would be better if she got a divorce. And in the end Marjane preferred to leave her husband and leave her family for a better life. It was a hard decision.

"I lived in Iran for 18 years and actually I didn't want to leave. My husband had been living in Ireland before we were married. After we married in 2004, I came over here with him. And I really love Ireland. We have a baby now, but the rest of my family have not been able to visit."

• All interviews by Conor Goodman. Sahar and Miryam are not the interviewees' real names

Persepolis, the movie
Persepolisis an animated feature film based on Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Iran after the downfall of the Shah in 1979. Marjane moves between Iran, Austria and France during the 1980s and 1990s, offering a humourous personal view of politics, emigration and bloodshed in her home country.

In his five-star review of the film, Irish Timesfilm correspondent Michael Dwyer described it as "a touching coming-of-age tale, a pointed political satire, a feminist fable, and an uproariously funny comedy".