What are the benefits and boundaries of a culture?
How is our understanding of society and culture constructed?
How are stereotypes constructed and deconstructed?
How are children and young adults affected by a cultural revolution?
How do cultures radicalize people?
Are graphic novels literature worthy of study in the classroom?
Essential questions are from the Portland Public Schools curriculum for Persepolis:
Barringer, David, et al. Persepolis. Portland Public Schools. 2010. Web. 28 Nov. 2010. Main Text 1. Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. Print. Text Set Fiction 2. Golshiri, Hushang. “The Victory Chronicle of the Magi.” Trans. M. R. Ghanoonparvar. Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature. Ed. Nahid Mozaffari. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2005. Print. 3. Pezeshkzad, Iraj. “Delayed Consequences of the Revolution.” Trans. Nahid Mozaffari. Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature. Ed. Nahid Mozaffari. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2005. Poetry
Attar, Farid ud-Din. The Conference of the Birds. Trans. Afhkam Darbandi and Dick Davis. New York: Penguin Books, 1984. Print.
Film 5. Children of Heaven. Dir. Majid Majidi. Perf. Mohammad Amir Naji, Amir Farrokh Hashemian, Bahare Seddiqi, Nafise Jafar-Mohammadi, and Fereshte Sarabandi. 1997. Miramax, 2002. DVD. 6. Close-up. Dir. Abbas Kiarostami. Perf. Hossain Sabzian and Moshen Makhmalbaf. 1990. Criterion, 2010. DVD. 7. Offside. Dir. Jafar Panafi. 2006. Sony Pictures, 2007. DVD. 8. Persepolis. Dir. Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi. Perf. Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, and Chiara Mastroianni. 2006. Sony Pictures, 2007. DVD. 9. Ten. Dir. Abbas Kiarostami. Perf. Mania Akbari and Amin Maher. 2002. Zeitgesit Films, 2004. DVD. Non-Fiction – History/Essay 10. Aslan, Reza. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. New York: Random House, 2006. Print. 11. Fanon, Frantz. “Algeria Unveiled.” A Dying Colonialism. Trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1965. 35-68. Print. Interviews 12. Colbert, Stephen. Interview with Reza Aslan. The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. 17 Apr. 2006. Web. 27 Nov. 2010. 13. ---. Interview with Reza Aslan. The Colbert Report. Comedy Central. 8 Nov. 2010. Web. 27 Nov. 2010. Articles 14. Aslan, Reza. “What We Got Wrong.” Foreign Policy 180 (Jul./Aug. 2010): 109-110. General OneFile. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. 15. Esfandiari, Haleh. “The Real Impact of the Elections.” ForeignPolicy.com. Foreign Policy, 7 Jun. 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. 16. Esfandiari, Golnaz. “The Twitter Devolution.” ForeignPolicy.com. Foreign Policy, 7 Jun. 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. 17. Fathi, Nazila. “What We Got Right.” ForeignPolicy.com. Foreign Policy, 7 Jun. 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. 18. Milani, Abbas. “Iran's Hidden Cyberjihad.” Foreign Policy 180 (Jul./Aug. 2010): 110-111. General OneFile. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. 19. Moaveni, Azadeh. “Misreading Tehran.” Foreign Policy 180 (Jul./Aug. 2010): 106-109. General OneFile. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. 20. Nafisi, Azar. “A Forgotten Civil Society.” ForeignPolicy.com. Interview by Britt Petterson. Foreign Policy, 7 Jun. 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. 21. Nasr, Vali. “5 Things You Didn't Know About...Ramadan.” Foreign Policy 180 (Jul./Aug. 2010): 112. General OneFile. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. Graphic Novel/Comic 22. McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. Print. Visual Arts 23. Balaghi, Shiva. “Abass's Photographs of Iran.” Middle East Report 233 (winter 2003): 28-33. JSTOR. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. 24. Balaghi, Shiva,and Gumpert, Lynn, eds. Picturing Iran: Art, Society and Revolution. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2002. Print.
Discussion 1. Persepolis and the Goal of the Text Set.
Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis is a graphic novel and memoir covering the author's childhood and early adolescence in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution and the early years of the Iran-Iraq war. In the Portland Public School system, Persepolis is part of the sophomore year language arts curriculum, and for good reason: it is a highly engaging text for high school students of any age, despite dealing with a culture likely to be unfamiliar to most high school sophomores.. It incorporates text and visuals, thus potentially appealing to students less invested in reading. It also features a main character close to the age of the students who will be reading the text. Finally, it is by turns comic and tragic. As a result of these features, Persepolis can be an effective entry point for a unit of study that explores serious and unique cultural issues.
Largely through its cultural perspective and visual focus, Persepolis is also a useful point of departure for a variety of issues. A teacher can branch out into discussions of culture, the graphic novel as an art form, visual literacy and even critical literacy. The following multi-genre text set is a reflection of the multiple ways Persepolis can be used in the classroom. As such, it does not constitute a complete and coherent unit of study. Rather, it indicates several directions a teacher can take. With the exception of McCloud's work, this text set is also limited to works I personally have had the chance to read or view. There are a number of other possibilities for multi-genre tie-ins to Persepolis, and a teacher looking to enrich a unit on Persepolis is well-advised to do as much independent background work as possible. The following is simply a small offering of what is available.
2-3. Short Stories.
The prose and verse found in PEN's Strange Times, My Dear provide an invaluable exposure to contemporary Iranian literature, much of which is not fortunate enough to have reached American audiences as of yet. The two short stories chosen for this text set, “The Victory Chronicle of the Magi” by Hushang Goshiri and “Delayed Consequences of the Revolution” by Iraj Pezeshkzad deal specifically with the time and ramifications of the Iranian Revolution. While exploration of Iranian culture beyond the revolution is encourage (and explored in the film selections in this text set), the short stories in this text set are meant to indicate the possibility of exploring other writings related to the specific temporal setting of Persepolis. To that end, Goshiri's story offers another look at how a revolution meant to end the tyranny of Mohammad Reza Shah was transformed into a specifically Islamic movement that cracked down on the citizens of Iran in much the same fashion as the Pahlavi regime. Pezeshkzad's story, in contrast, lampoons the elites of the Pahlavi regime as they live in exile after the revolution. Both of these stories are relatively compatible with the attitude towards the revolution taken in Persepolis, yet offer another means and genre for reflecting on the currents of the period and Iranian societies. Pezeshkzad's story may be more suited for struggling readers, with scaffolding, as it is shorter and humorous, as opposed to the longer, more serious exploration of shifting attitudes and hypocrisy found in Goshiri's story. Nevertheless, both stories stand as excellent complements to Persepolis in a course of study intent on in-depth exploration of the Iranian Revolution.
Farid ud-Din Attar's set of poems titled The Conference of the Birds is an opportunity to include non-contemporary cultural background to Persepolis and Iran. A twelfth century Sufi allegory, The Conference of the Birds tells the story of a group of birds who journey to meet the great Simorgh. The birds must pass through a series of stages along the way, during which many of the birds drop out. In the end, thirty birds make it to where the Simorgh is supposed to be, only to find their reflection. Literally “thirty birds,” the Simorgh is themselves—the birds who have passed through the states of Sufism. Thus, The Conference of the Birds is an allegory for the Sufi way.
The Conference of the Birds is one example of classical Persian poetry, with a Sufi twist. Classical Persian poetry in general can be useful in conjunction with Persepolis, as it reflects a strong cultural tradition of the high arts, while this text specifically engages the students with Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam often linked with Persia. The danger with introducing classical examples of Iranian culture is that they are not wholly reflective of contemporary culture. Nevertheless, the inclusion of classical forms of culture in a unit with a multicultural focus helps inoculate students against the Western canon, demonstrating that other cultures have produced their fair share of classic texts.
Usage of the entirety of the poem is not necessarily recommended, especially with struggling readers. Caution should also be taken to draw the line to teaching about religion and indoctrination. While this text set is rooted in a firm belief that students should be exposed to other cultures, in this day and age the teacher must take care when discussing religion.
Despite continuing issues of censorship, Iranian cinema provides a valuable insight on contemporary issues and the quotidian happenings of Iranian lives. Film can be a great medium for struggling readers, although most of the films listed do require an amount of reading by way of subtitles. Nevertheless, several recent Iranian films, along with the animated film version of Persepolis can be a valuable resource for a multi-genre approach. A number of such films will be briefly discussed below, in alphabetical order.
Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven is the most accessible film on this list, aside from the adaptation of Persepolis. Following a major trope of Iranian cinema (children), this film centers on the plight of a poor young Iranian boy and his sister. Having lost his sister's only pair of shoes, the boy must share his shoes with his sister, switching hastily between the girls morning school and the boys afternoon school. Children of Heaven is a heartwarming portrayal of the daily lives of lower class Iranians, anchored with a sympathetic protagonist and straightforward plot development. Majidi's film could thus prove most popular in the high school classroom.
Kiarostami's Close-up is a fascinating postmodern look at the nature of film and identity. It follows the real-life case of a man who was tried for impersonating filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf. Having heard of the case before the man went to trial, Kiarostami quickly set to work, and composed his film with a combination of actual footage of the trial and other related events as well as reenactments of key events, with the real life participants playing themselves. It is an interesting mix of reenactment and reality, further complicated by difficult “actors,” Kiarostami's interventions during the trial, and other editorial tricks. While this film may not be the easiest film for high school student engagement, it can be excerpted to illustrate an example of the Iranian judicial system at work. Kiarostami's visit to the judge to obtain permission to film as well as the trial footage are worth highlighting, with the caveat that Kiarostami's questioning of the accused in the courtroom was out of the ordinary. Close-up is a challenging, but rich film not to be overlooked.
Offside, a film by Jafar Panafi, highlights the issues facing women in Iran today by taking up as a theme the fact that women are not allowed to attend sporting events with men. This is done under the guise of protecting the women from the crude language and behavior expected of male spectators. Filmed during the World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain in 2005, the film shows half a dozen young women who attempt to disguise themselves as boys and gain entry to the match, only to be caught and sequestered outside the stadium. The film highlights the tension between the young women seeking a few hours of anonymous equality and the young soldiers forced to enforce the restrictions. Though focused on one specific issue, Panafi's film highlights the continued inequality faced by women in Iran with great nuance. This film should provide a great deal of discussion in the classroom, and ties in with the discussion of the repressive regime faced in Iran after the revolution as depicted in Persepolis.
Marjane Satrapi worked with director Vincent Paronnaud to complete the film of Persepolis, which includes both volumes of the graphic novel (whereas this unit and text set only uses the first volume). The film is faithful to Satrapi's original style, and can be used merely to conclude a unit on Persepolis or as an exercise in comparing the graphic novel as a medium to an animated film as a medium. The film offers struggling readers a break—although a French film, with renowned French actresses playing the lead roles, the DVD of Persepolis also offers an English-dubbed version with equally talented performers. While dubbed versions are not always recommended, in this case it may help struggling readers or students with visual intake issues to be relieved of having to read while watching a film.
Another film by Kiarostami, Ten is a series of ten scenes which all take place in the same woman's car in Tehran. In each scene, she has a passenger along for the ride. Most of the time each passenger is different, but the film is anchored by the presence of her son, who is still struggling with his parent's divorce. Ten offers a glimpse of contemporary Tehran from a unique perspective—the inside of a car. More importantly, each vignette provides an interesting slice-of-life of the daily lives of the driver and her passengers. In terms of usage in the classroom, at least a portion of the first scene (and the longest, at roughly twenty minutes) is recommended. This is the first scene between the driver and her son, which lays the groundwork for their conflict over the recent divorce of the driver and her husband. Much of their dynamic can be easily divorced, as it were, from the Iranian context, and many students may be able to connect their own experiences to the situation. Given the structure of the film, a full viewing is not recommended, as the patience of the students is sure to be tested. Nevertheless, the first segment depicts a conflict between contemporary characters that is both specific and relatively universal, thus allowing for a connection between students sitting in a classroom in the United States and a boy being driven around by his mother in Tehran.
10-11. Non-Fiction – History/Essay.
Reza Aslan's No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam is an insightful exploration of the historical background of Islam, the major currents of Islam through the present day, and the state of Islam and Islamic societies that moves beyond a simplistic viewpoint of anti-Western fanaticism. While too long to use as a supplementary text for students, Aslan's book can be easily excerpted in order to provide a solid background of Islam or, more directly relevant to Persepolis, on the rise of Khomeinism and the Iranian Revolution. Indeed, chapter seven, “In the Footsteps of Martyrs: From Shi'ism to Khomeinism” provides an excellent overview of Islamic thought and movements in Iran, leading up to the Iranian Revolution and Khomeini's rise to power. Additionally, Aslan's book can be used to help dispel and reexamine current rhetoric about Islam. For example, Alsan argues that virulent anti-Western rhetoric and terrorist acts are not simply about hatred of America, but are part of an ongoing internal struggle within Islam over who controls the meaning of Islam. Thus, Aslan's book can be helpful for both discussing the context of the Iranian Revolution as well as attempting to reach a more nuanced understanding of Islam and the Muslim world.
“Algeria Unveiled” from Fanon's A Dying Colonialism may at first seem an odd choice in conjunction with a graphic novel about the Iranian Revolution, but it in fact is indicative of the broader issue of women and Islam, one of the many issues for which Persepolis can be used as a point of departure. Much has been said about the oppression of women in Islamic societies, and while some of it is justifiable, it is important to understand that the issue is far more complex that some make it out to be. One of the specific issues that becomes overly generalized is that of the hijab or veil, where arguments supporting or opposing the use of the hijab fail to take into account the lived practices of the women who do or do not wear the hijab. Reza Aslan puts the need for a more complex understanding succinctly when he writes:
The fact is that the traditional colonial image of the veiled Muslim woman as the sheltered, docile sexual property of her husband is just as misleading and simpleminded as the postmodernist image of the veil as the emblem of female freedom and empowerment from Western cultural hegemony. The veil may be neither or both of these things, but that is up to Muslim women to decide for themselves. (2006, 73)
Marjane Satrapi's youthful rebellion against an oppressive Islamic society and the strictures placed on women after the revolution provide one viewpoint of women in Islam, and while the oppressive nature of Khomeini's government is unquestionable, it should not stand as a representation of all of women in Islam. If the goal of teaching Persepolis is greater cultural understanding, then these nuances need to be taken into account.
To return to the text, “Algeria Unveiled” is one example of many accounts of the lived practices of women in relation to Islamic and Western codes of dress—an example which highlights the importance of contingencies in cultural decisions. Fanon details the role of shifts between Islamic and Western styles of clothing used by women as was necessitated by the Algerian Revolution, when the need to either hide an explosive device or pass through checkpoints unnoticed informed what certain women wore when they went outside. While this is only one particular story focused on one particular time and place in history, it highlights the fact that there are a variety of reasons for women to or not to wear the hijab in Islamic societies, many of which are often unexplored if not completely ignored when discussing women's rights in the Muslim world.
With both of these resources, a word of warning is needed for struggling readers. Fanon's text can be dense at times, and would benefit from reading aloud in class. Aslan's text incorporates a great deal if historical information, including a variety of unfamiliar names of people and places, so students may get overwhelmed. In both cases, it is recommended that the teacher highlight important points in the text and scaffold the lesson so that the learning experience is not solely dependent on the comprehension of these texts.
The two interviews of writer and scholar Reza Aslan on The Colbert Report offer a humorous distillation of contemporary state if Islam both internally and externally. Following the publication of his book No god but God (discussed above) and the more recent edited collection Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes of the Modern Middle East (2010), these interviews focus on the recent internal battles in Islam over who controls interpretation (2006 interview) and the role the arts can play in breaking down cultural boundaries and helping to bring about better understanding (2010 interview). Indeed, this point made in the more recent interview is one of the very goals of a proposed unit on Persepolis. These interviews are helpful for students as they offer a humorous look at a related subject matter in a format which which they are likely familiar. Presentation of the interviews must be couched with the understanding that the interviewer is adopting a satirical persona, and that the interviewee sometimes plays along with this persona. Consequently, students must be aware of the need to recognize satire and humor, especially as it touches on the subject of religion. Nevertheless, used wisely, these interviews can be a creative tool for touching upon some of the issues raised by Persepolis.
The articles I have chosen for this text set come from a series in Foreign Policy reflecting on the events and coverage of the events of the summer of 2009 in Iran. In 2009, conservative and controversial Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran for reelection against former Prime Minister and reform-oriented Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Ahmadinejad won, but under accusations of massive vote fraud, leading to a period of popular protest dubbed the “Green Revolution.” The Green Revolution was a phenomenon both in Iran and abroad, where journalists spilled a great deal of ink and bandwidth discussing the possibility of revolution and regime change, along with the contributions made by new social media to the events that summer. Ultimately, Ahmadinejad remained President, the movement seemed to fizzle out, and the foreign press turned its eye towards more pressing matters.
The events of 2009 are important to consider when discussing Persepolis as they engage students with Iranian culture and issues not only through the context and time period of the text, but through contemporary events and currents. However, the articles from Foreign Policy are not only concerned with the events of 2009, but more so with reflecting on how the media covered them. Rather than merely discuss the current political issues in Iran (censorship, oppression, desire for change, enrichment of uranium), this text set is meant to suggest a discussion of current events and how they are covered by the media. Hence these particular articles, which provide such reflection.
This text set not only helps bring students more or less up to date (at the time of writing) with political currents in Iran, but also helps them to think more critically about the reporting coming out of and written about Iran. By reading articles that discuss the increased limitations on foreign journalists in Iran, the lack of concern of the foreign press with much of what occurs in Iran as it is not viewed as having wide enough implications, and the shift in focus of American and foreign press upon the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, students will be able to reflect critically on the limitations of media coverage of current events, especially in the Middle East. Furthermore, students will also be able to reflect critically on conclusions and connections drawn by the media as they read articles discussing the ways in which the media both over- and under-exaggerated the impact of the Green Revolution and the ways in which the media over-exaggerated the role of social media and Twitter during the events of 2009. While this text set does not necessarily set the students out to review and critique media, it opens the door for such a possibility, and greater understanding of the limits of the news media as a source of information and interpretation.
22. Graphic Novel/Comic.
Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is an essay on the comic form in the style of the a graphic novel. By using the very genre his is exploring, Scott discusses the historical background of visual representation and the variety of tropes and devices used in comics and graphic novels, ranging from cell dimensions and use to the depiction of the passage of time. McCloud's text can be excerpted for the classroom or used as a reference guide for the teacher in preparation for a creative project in a unit featuring Persepolis. It also provides both the student and teacher some key vocabulary needed to discuss Persepolis as a graphic novel. Indeed, one of the keys to visual literacy is the building of the necessary vocabulary, and one of the keys to discussing Persepolis is to be able to do so in reference not only to the story and cultural background but to the medium and visual aspects as well. Consequently, McCould's book is a vital resource for both student and teacher for discussing any graphic novel—Persepolis included.
23-24. Visual Arts.
Beyond visual literacy as it pertains to the graphic novel, a study centered around Persepolis can also incorporate a look at other aspects of visual arts in Iran. Balaghi and Gumpert's book Picturing Iran: Art, Society and Revolution provides a series of excellent discussions of visual arts in twentieth century Iran, while Balaghi's article supplements one of her own essays in Picturing Iran. While Picturing Iran also includes discussions of modernity in Iran and Iranian Modern Art, the most relevant essays in the text are those on posters, graphic arts and photography centered around the Iranian Revolution, the very time period of Satrapi's Persepolis. Haggai Ram's contribution focuses on the usage of iconography from multiple sources in revolutionary posters. Peter Chelkowski's contribution discusses graphic arts during and after the revolution, including stamps, postcards, posters and murals. Balaghi's essay discusses famed photographer Abbas's works centered on the revolution, while her article in Middle East Report briefly compares his work during the revolution to his work at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. All of these selections are useful in linking politics and art, while providing a great resource for examples of visual arts in Iran. Balaghi's articles and the accompanying photographs are especially useful in offering another representation of the Iranian Revolution, thus allowing students another perspective and visual reference for the time period of Persepolis.
While the texts may not be at an appropriate reading level for all students, they can nevertheless be a useful teacher resource, as they provide key background and analysis for the accompanying images and examples. The primary usage of these texts in the classroom are thus the images—the extent to which the essays about the images enter the students' purview is at the discretion of the teacher.
The preceding text set is provides a number of directions toward which the teacher can turn when using Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis as a point of departure. The short stories and poetry examples offer a look at other forms of literature from Iran, both classical and modern. This films show various portrayals of life in modern and contemporary Iran, focusing on a variety of themes, including class and gender issues. The essays and interviews look at Islamic history, practices and internal conflicts in order to complicate received views, while the articles take a look at both the tumultuous events of the summer of 2009 in Iran and the way in which these events were covered and interpreted by the media. The inclusion of McCloud's text and the works on visual arts in Iran helps to highlight the discussion on visual literacy and cultures that can be generated through Persepolis. Inclusion of every item on in this text set would be ill-advised. Nevertheless, it stands as a testament to the possibilities opened by a unit of study of Persepolis.