This month, we’ve been digging into the Iranian revolution of 1979 with our pairing of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, and “1979 Revolution: Black Friday” from iNK Studios and directed by Navid Khonsari. To wrap up this pairing, I want to talk a little bit about socioeconomic status and education, and the role they play in these stories.
What is striking, and significant, is that Satrapi, Nafisi, and Reza (the protagonist of “1979 Revolution”) are all well educated and come from solidly middle to upper middle class families. This is clear in the stories of travels abroad – Satrapi in Vienna, Nafisi in the United States, and Reza in Germany. This is simply a fact of life for our protagonists, and the experience of studying in Western countries is mentioned a bit haphazardly. Satrapi and Nafisi spend a number of pages on their time away from Iran, but they don’t really confront the privileges that allow them to leave the tumultuous country of their family. “1979 Revolution” is covering a much smaller time span and is so focused on the events of the days leading up to Black Friday (September 8, 1978), but the fact that they mention Reza’s European education, even just in passing, is worth noting. Reza’s socioeconomic status is clearly defined by his time in Germany and his parents’ support of the cushy life they experience under the Shah (Reza Pahlavi). For all three protagonists, the educated, financially comfortable life they lead is accepted…if not unequivocally, with few protests. This is one of my struggles with these stories: while we get a variety of perspectives – male, female, child, adult, academic, protestor – they are all in the same strain of middle class, educated Iranians.
There are two specific stories in Persepolis and “1979 Revolution” that challenge the middle class, educated identity of Satrapi and Reza. In chapter 5 of Persepolis, Satrapi tells the story of her maid Mehri and the boy next door. Mehri was from the country and began working for Satrapi’s family because Mehri’s own family was very poor. Mehri was illiterate, and asked Satrapi to write love letters to the boy next door. When Satrapi’s father found out what was going on, he forbid Satrapi to continue and exposed Mehri’s status as a poor, uneducated, country girl. Satrapi spend a few panels detailing her internal struggle of finally recognizing the class difference between her and Mehri, and this is one of my favorite parts of the book. Satrapi captures a child’s confusion of socioeconomic class and the associations – both positive and negative – with difference social and socioeconomic statuses.
Reza also has a moment of confusion and clarity around socioeconomic status with his family’s servant, Babak. This was more striking to me than Satrapi’s story with Mehri. From the beginning of the game, it appears Babak is one of Reza’s very close friends – they meet on the rooftop and Babak draws Reza into the revolution. It isn’t until much later that we discover Babak is a servant in Reza’s family home, like a brother to Reza, but still a servant. This is made clear when Babak serves the family dinner and answers the telephone for them. Reza invites Babak to eat dinner at the table with the family, an invitation that draws rebuke from Reza’s mother. It serves as a reality check, much like Mehri’s story, to the stark differences between social classes in Iran.
The tension between socioeconomic classes is present is so many societies, and yet it is only lightly touched in all three of our stories for this month’s pairing. Perhaps this is because our authors are all educated and middle class, intellectuals who have the ability to write memoirs and develop games about their experiences during the Iranian revolution. Yet I think it’s important to identify this missing piece, and understand the lens through which our protagonists tell the stories. Socioeconomic status does not invalidate or cheapen these stories – Satrapi, Nafisi, and Khonsari are sharing really important experiences, especially now – but they do leave out the stories of the country folk, the uneducated, and the deeply religious. This month’s pairing stands as a reminder that humanizing is important and hard, and that no one speaks for everyone.