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In Persepolis, a graphic novel memoir, Marjane Satrapi depicts a chilling picture of what life was like growing up in Iran during times of upheaval. She describes many disturbing things, such as bombings in her neighborhood and rallies against the regime where protesters were beaten. One of the things she describes is the country’s fascination with martyrs, both when Marji is a child and when she is an adult, returning to Iran after the war has ended. During both times she was living in Iran, it was controlled by oppressive regimes with extremist Islamic beliefs. It was those beliefs that led rulers and citizens alike to hold martyrdom as the utmost glory. This essay will discuss Marjane’s encounters with the glorification of war, the Islamic views of martyrdom, both textually and historically, and how this issue ties into the overall theme of Persepolis.
In her memoir, Marjane is influenced by what she sees of the culture around her glorifying war and martyrdom. In the chapter “The Key”, Marjane talks to her mother about seeing the streets lined with nuptial chambers for the virgin martyrs. Then her maid, Mrs. Nasrine, tells them that her son was given a gold plastic key in school and told that it would get him in to heaven should he be lucky enough to die in war. Mrs. Nasrine reveals that her son’s teachers have told him that if he goes to heaven, he will be rewarded with food, gold, and women, in an attempt to get him to desire death on the battlefield. What Mrs. Nasrine’s son has been told is consistent with Islamic beliefs that martyrs are considered the most holy people entering heaven and are rewarded by Allah beyond all others.
Marji later describes the slogans written on the walls in Iran and quotes one: “To die a martyr is to inject blood into the veins of society”. Marji recounts this phrase when she thinks how the regime considers very different people martyrs than she does. The stories Marji makes up as a child when she is jealous of another girl whose father was a war hero show the glorification of war in her culture. This shows that, because of how she has been taught, she places greater value on the idea of having a hero of war in her family than having perfectly healthy and safe parents.
The same ideas that about martyrdom and war that Marjane learned as a child are still being taught to both children and adults in Iran today. In a public speech, the president-elect, Ahmadi-Nejad said, “Is there art that is more beautiful, more divine, and more eternal than the art of martyrdom?” Children growing up today in Iran are being taught that they must die for the Islamic cause in order to get into heaven, just as Mrs. Nasrine’s son is in Persepolis. “This is the ultimate in child abuse. Here you have a whole generation of kids who think the most they can accomplish in life is to die for Allah. This is a tragedy with implications that no one in the West has begun to contemplate,” wrote Israeli researcher Itamar Marcus.
This concept is something that exists more strongly in Islam that in any Western religions. In most forms of Christianity, suicide is considered a sin, and to some branches the worst sin of all. Liberal Protestants believe that Christians who commit suicide are still granted heaven, though they do not believe it is the only way into heaven as Muslims do. “The only way Muslims can have assurance of salvation and eternal life is by becoming a martyr for the cause of Islam,” said Reza F. Safa, author of Inside Islam. “To a Muslim,” he added, “dying and killing for the cause of Islam is not only an honor, but also a way of pleasing Allah.”
Persepolis tells the story of a young girl who grew up during wartime, but had Marji been a male, or from a lower class, the story could have been very different. Marji was lucky that she had free-thinking, educated parents who taught her to value her life or she might have been brainwashed like so many other young people both in her time and the present day who believe that their life is worthless and only measureable by their death. Marjane was lucky that she got to live a full life, even if she was miserable at times in her adulthood. Persepolis ends with Marji off on a trip with her husband and thinking she will get a divorce, and ending that many readers find abrupt. But the thing that is most powerful about the ending, if that Marjane has her whole future ahead of her, even if she is unsure where it will take her and what she will do next. She survived growing up in a country at war, living by herself in a foreign country during her teenage years, and the trouble and turmoil of early adulthood. At the end of the book, Marjane has a bright, wide open future ahead of her, something that all the martyrs of the war or those who sacrificed themselves in the name of an ideology do not.
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