marjane satrapi, artist, writer and director of “persepolis”, spoke at hallwalls in buffalo on april 1st, 2009. i was lucky enough to get an audio recording from my friend damien adia, an ardent satrapi fan. even though i wasn’t able to attend the event, satrapi’s presence seemed electric and the high level of energy in the room was palpable.
well-known for her wit and honesty, she delivered a lecture that was at once hilarious and substantive. like she said, humor is a great ice breaker – it facilitates frank discussion without anyone’s guard going up. it made me think of my own film where i used a mélange of cultural richness, everyday american life and familiar people and places to the same end.
many of the things satrapi said spoke to me in a very personal way. some i have said myself and others she expressed with such clarity that it became possible for me to articulate them with more keenness.
for example, the fact that we are all part of the same culture – it’s all one big hodgepodge with no clearly defined outlines. whenever people insinuate that it’s strange for me to like mozart and beethoven or to know the words to pretty much every billy joel song there is, it annoys me – massively. all i can think of is: “but you don’t own this music. why do i even need to explain? art belongs to everyone. it’s not franchised by geographic region!” so when satrapi talks about culture as being continuous links of the same global chain, it truly hits the spot!
she gave the example of omar khayyám, 11th century persian mathematician, philosopher, astronomer and poet whose quatrains or rubaiyat were translated in english by edward fitzgerald. not only did khayyam’s work leave a lasting impact on science and mathematics, but he also influenced english poets like donn, blake, wordsworth, shelley and eliot. persian ideas are also apparent in goethe and emerson’s writings as well as in victor hugo’s.
as i was researching this fact i came upon an interesting essay, “persian literature and its influence on europe and america from the 17th century up to the present time”
i quote from the article:
in “les miserables” of victor hugo, the story of the good bishop m. miriel and the thief jean valjan will always be remembered. the following is the story as it is told in the dabistan [ancient persian book].
muhammad ali of shiraz was the fellow student of shah fattah allah, and he traced his family to azar kaivan. he, however, attained perfection through the society of farzaneh bahram, the son of farhad, and had also traversed the seven climes. a thief came to his house one night. mohammad ali pretended to be asleep on his carpet. the robber searched the house carefully, but as all the effects were concealed in a secure place, he was unable to get at them. at this point, muhammad ali, raising his head, said to him, “i laid myself down to feign sleep so that thou mightest accomplish thy desires, whereas thou art in despair. be no longer uneasy”. he then arose, and pointed out the place where all the things were stored away. in consequence of this generous proceeding the robber repented, abandoned his vile profession and became a virtuous character.
ah, the cultural strata of the world – layer upon amorphous layer of cultural deposit over centuries of human thought and endeavor, like so many geological formations!
thus the idea of the clash of cultures becomes preposterous, an argument that i have poked holes in myself. but satrapi is not averse to talking about differences. the word “clash” conjures up images of head-on collisions and destruction. exploring different points of view is more interesting and it can lead to a fuller, more realistic, panoramic vision of the world.
on the other hand the concept of the “other” is dishonest and counterproductive, especially when the other is portrayed as evil. for example, terrorists have become a new category in and of themselves. they are not defined as human. they’re more like aliens. this makes it justifiable to dismiss them as evil without trying to understand them.
iran too was famously described by bush as being part of the axis of evil – satrapi is amused by the lumping together or iran and iraq (countries at war for 8 years with 1.5 million dead) and north korea which has nothing to do with either one of them! when evil has an ethnicity, a nationality, a name and address, then the impetus is to wipe it off the face of the earth. this was the basis for fascism. the truth is that evil is everywhere – it has no nationality, no religion, no particular “look”.
demonizing an entire nation based on the actions of a few is ridiculous, especially in a country like iran which is struggling with dictatorship. the same is true of many other muslim countries. dictators, by definition, dictate – which means that they do not represent the views of the majority. otherwise iran would be the most thriving democracy in the world. in fact even in democratic countries, the president and his cabinet do not represent all citizens. “you have experienced that for the last 8 years” satrapi added to roaring laughter and applause. in fact, if you look closely enough, the differences between so-called dictatorships and so-called democracies can be illusory and tenuous at best.
another myth she exploded was that of western civilization. she called the smug assessments of degrees of “civilization” the biggest bluff ever. take the example of paris, a cultured, civilized city by any standard. now, cut off the power and water supply, empty its markets of food and see how people behave towards one another. “we are not more civilized” satrapi summarized, “just less hungry.” subsequently, some societies don’t have a natural affinity for democracy while others don’t. democracy and human rights are appreciated by all, equally. human life should have the same value everywhere. we should be humanists first and be extremely wary of de-humanizing others.
in reality, the division is between the fanatics and the rest of us. we are more than them but they are louder. they use emotion rather than reason. all intellectual work is therefore the opposite of fanaticism because it doesn’t rely on emotion, it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, it simply asks questions. this process of intellectual exploration is more complex than fanaticism – it takes longer to find the answers but once you find them you can never forget them. it’s less feisty, less sensational and it doesn’t win elections, but it’s the only way out. this is why satrapi emphasizes culture and education (with the necessary backdrop of a functioning economy of course). she calls them weapons of mass construction. if we want to build fewer jails than we must build more schools. it’s as simple as that.