Marjane “Marji” Satrapi is an intelligent, spirited, and very modern girl living with her parents in Iran’s capital of Tehran during the eventful period of Iranian history from the late 1970s into the early 1980s. In Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Marji’s remembers her life during those years, mostly from when she was about ten to age fourteen. This account includes how Marji and her family lived through and were affected by turbulent events that included the overthrow of the autocratic Shah of Iran by the Islamic revolution, the oppressive fundamentalist regime that replaced the Shah, and the devasting Iran-Iraq war.
The nation’s wealth has long made it a target of outside invaders, but Islamic revolution of 1979 has pushed out the Western-backed government of the Shah. The revolution has ushered in a new Islamic regime that is bringing massive societal changes impacting how people are supposed to behave--including Marji and her family. Marji struggles to adjust to the changes at her liberal French bilingual school, which has become increasingly stricter. Girls are required to wear veils and female and male students are now separated. Marji’s wealthy and modern parents—her father, Ebi, and her mother, Taji—take part in the massive protests against the new regime’s strict rules on behavior (just as they had previously protested against the Shah’s regime). Marji’s parents worry when a photo of Marji’s mother a protest appears in newspapers magazines. Later, after a demonstration they are at turns violent, the Satrapis decide that openly protesting is too dangerous to continue to do.
Marji feels conflict between her own deeply spiritual feelings and the stark modernism of her parents. She talks to God at night and has believed she will become a prophet one day since she was six years old, Marji. But the revolution leads to Marji setting aside these ambitions while she studies and imitates protestors and revolutionaries. She mimics protestors in the garden of her house and studies books about famous revolutionaries and philosophers given to her by her parents. She fantasizes about becoming a hero and wants her parents to become heroes too. Marji’s relationship with God becomes strained, as she finds that she and God have less to talk about—although God does still come by to see her from time to time.
Marji thrills when she learns that rebels fill her family history. She learns that her grandfather was a prince and later a communist whom the Shah removed from power and that her uncle Anoosh, also a communist, spent nine years in prison during the Shah’s regime. Marji spends a short time with Anoosh, learning about his life. After the Shah fell from power in 1979, Anoosh was released from prison, but when Islamic fundamentalists consolidate their grip on power, they hunt Anoosh down, imprison him, and later execute him. Her new idol killed, Marji feels crushed. She completely abandons her faith in God and increasingly questions the pro-regime propaganda she hears—especially at school.
Marji deeply loves and identifies with of her parents, even if she does sometimes feel that their actions and behavior (as wealthy and privileged individuals) do not always live up to their pro-democratic and liberal rhetoric. Marji also has a special connection with her grandmother, who remains stoic and inspiring to Marji in spite of the turmoil and numerous tragedies stemming from political actions that impact her and the family. Marji’s uncle Anoosh is not Marji’s only direct experience with the cruel consequences of the government’s actions. Throughout the book, death and devastation occurs among Marji’s extended family and friends as direct results of the brutality and fanaticism of the Iranian regimes and the war with Iraq.
People had rejoiced when the Shah was forced out, but as Islamic fundamentalists retain power, Marji and her family watch as their neighbors’ behavior shifts back and forth to coincide with the current political winds. The neighbors go from wearing short skirts and drinking alcohol to covering themselves and denouncing the use of alcohol. Marji’s parents ask her to tell everyone that she prays every day, a lie they hope will keep Marji safe, but acknowledge that the rules seem foolish. Marji grows more rebellious, as she increasingly views the rules at school and elsewhere as hypocritical and difficult to follow. Armed with more knowledge and personal experience, Marji begins to act out in ways that put her safety at risk. In fact, she even (accidentally) hits her principal during an argument, which results in her expulsion from school. Fearing her rebellious behavior will get her killed, Marji’s mother tries to reason with Marji by telling her that it is not her responsibility to serve justice and that the bad guys eventually pay for their sins in the end.
The war with Iraq had originally inspired Marji to vocal patriotism in protection her country against another invasion, but Marji begins to realize there are greater forces behind the war. She sees how the Islamic regime needs the war to continue survive and keep power. The war promotes a sense of nationalism and pride in the public, and those who die in the war are hailed as “martyrs.” Marji sees thousands of poor boys lured into war without proper training. She becomes increasingly uncomfortable and aware of class differences within society. Poor young boys are lured into the army with gold-painted keys to the “kingdom of heaven” to help them enter paradise after dying on the battlefield, while children in her wealthy neighborhood are left alone.
More and more people try to escape Iran as the borders tighten and Iraqi forces bomb Tehran and other Iranian cities. Realizing that Marji’s chances of escaping Iran are narrowing, her parents make the difficult decision to send her abroad alone to finish school in Vienna, explaining that only a good education will free her of Iran. Marji feels heartbroken. She spends one last night with her grandmother, who gives her warm advice and inspires her to be compassionate and understanding while in Vienna. Marji gives away all of her prized contraband to her friends, including a Kim Wilde poster. At the airport, as Marji turns to say goodbye to her parents one last time to see that her mother, devasted by her only child’s departure, has fainted.