At school the other morning, as Eli and I were saying good bye to Ben, already settled into a drawing project, a boy walked over and pushed Ben off his chair. Ben was too surprised to talk and even I needed a moment to gather myself before speaking gently to the child, who somehow, in the clueless, bulldozing way of some kindergartners, just hadn’t seen Ben. Ben and I talked about it later, cuddled cozily on the couch, with Eli dancing around us recalling the drama: “Dat boy pushed Benno,” he recounted wide-eyed, the surprise still fresh in his voice. “No push people. Push swings.”
It’s so simple right now, as perhaps a rule-bound two year-old can convey best; and when the rules of polite society are tested by its youngest members, it’s easy enough for a parent to intercede. This week, it was just a rambunctious boy who didn’t see my kid, but I worry about the day someone does see my kid and pushes him anyway. Oh, I know, the world generally treats blonde boys very well, thank you very much, so I teach my boys to wear their privilege respectfully. And yet, Ben’s a smart boy in a culture that doesn’t really pride itself on intelligence; a vegetarian in a meat-eating society; an awkward body in a world that expects boys to run gracefully and handle balls fluidly. He’s a quirky bird, and like any parent, I want to help my child learn to be himself regardless of how the world reacts to him.
My thoughts about Ben were cast into sharp perspective when I watched the beautiful and moving new Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007). Based on Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis is a memoir of her childhood in Tehran during the Revolution, and her lonely adolescence, exiled without her family, in Vienna. The film is largely in black and white (and a thousand gorgeous shades of gray), animated simply, and in French (depending on where you live, your theater will play a subtitled version like I saw, or one with an English voice-over track), all of which, I know, screams “Art-y!” But instead of being distancing, those often off-putting elements combine to create a film that’s so funny and real, of such quiet beauty and emotional resonance, I didn’t want to move after it was over, lest I break its spell.
The story begins in Tehran, 1978. Marjane is a typical little girl who pretends to be a fierce dragon, adores Bruce Lee, aspires to be a prophet (one dictum is that old women — like her beloved grandma — don’t suffer) and is thrilled to hear that her grandpa was a prince and a communist. As the revolution begins, she finds the upheaval exciting; she eavesdrops, wide-eyed, on adult conversation and then translates their stories of prison life and torture into playground games. But when her uncle dies in prison, she loses her faith and gains a sense of sobering reality. The revolution isn’t a playground game.
We see Marjane next at school, now veiled, a young teen attempting regular life. She and her friends pass pictures of The Bee Gees and Abba to each other under their desks, she letters “Punk Is Ded” onto the back of her jean jacket and buys a bootleg Iron Maiden tape during a walk down Gandhi Avenue. But classes are interrupted by air raids and parties by arrests. Her male classmates are given plastic keys to heaven to encourage them to join the army and martyr themselves in the war against Iraq. When Marjane spots a friend’s arm in the bombed-out wreckage of her home, the camera closes in tightly on her face, mouth open in horror, as it thins and elongates like the figure in Munch’s The Scream. The combination of threats – both from Iraq and from the state Guardians of morality – makes normal life and normal reactions virtually impossible. She talks back to her teacher like any feisty adolescent, but in doing so risks expulsion, imprisonment, or worse.
So Marjane’s mother makes a brave and terrible decision — she exiles her daughter to Vienna to finish high school. Perhaps by the time Marjane returns, matured in a culture that allows independent women, her country’s social and political turmoil will have settled, and she will be able to make a life in Iran like her mother and grandmother have. Before she leaves, Marjane curls up with her grandma, already nostalgic for her sweet smell. This woman who stuffs her bra with jasmine blossoms is no softy, though. She speaks frankly and tells bawdy jokes; she’s lived through enough upheaval that she knows how to live steadily while the changes blow past. She reminds Marjane simply to be herself, to be dignified, to maintain her integrity. And then Marjane’s mother hugs her goodbye at the airport, and then faints when her daughter walks away.
Life in exile proves in ways more difficult than life in a war-torn home, exposing her to the typical adolescent problems of trying to fit into an alien environment. Marjane’s an outsider, and while she can speak up now without fear of imprisonment, she faces instead the cutting judgments of other teenage girls and the shifting affections of young men. Pretending she’s French doesn’t help (and inspires a guilty-conscience imaginary lecture from her grandma). Eventually, no longer a girl but a weary and sad young woman, she returns to Tehran, where she doesn’t fit, either. When she’s caught out on the street wearing make-up, she distracts the Guardians’ attention by accusing a bystander of insulting her, so the man is hauled off to jail. Marjane laughs telling the story to her grandmother, and is caught up short by her reaction: “You’re a selfish bitch! You had a choice; everyone always has a choice! What have I taught you? Integrity!? Shame on you!”
“Fear lulls our brains to sleep,” she says to Marjane later, relieved that her granddaughter, now enrolled in college, is resisting fear, starting to speak up against the administration’s stringent restrictions on women. But her mother still worries that living in Iran will change her daughter too much, and insists that she leave again: “You’re going for good,” her mother urges her, “You’re free. Today’s Iran is not for you. I forbid you to come back.”
The film ends with delicate white jasmine flowers floating across a dark screen and the voice of young Marjane talking to her grandma; it’s a quiet, lulling end to a film steeped in violence, both actual and potential, and it reminded me how innocent my family life is. After I saw Persepolis, Ben came home from school bursting with exciting news: a classmate’s mom had visited the classroom, in uniform, wearing the equipment she carries when she’s on duty for the San Francisco Police Department: her baton, her pepper spray, and her gun. “Really,” I said, my eyes probably as wide as Eli’s, yet working hard not to betray my complicated feelings about weapons. “I’ve never seen a gun.”
The next day, my artist boy proudly brought me a very detailed drawing, all thick black ink on white paper. “Here, Mama, because you said you’ve never seen one. This is what a gun looks like.” So that afternoon, we cuddled up together on the couch as he showed me all the careful features of his drawing: its ruler-straight lines, the delicately curved trigger, the dark bullets. I admired it, as I do all his drawings, even though part of me wants to establish another rule: No guns! But even Eli is starting to outgrow the age when the rules are so hard and fast, and I know saying “no guns” doesn’t make them go away, doesn’t reduce the violence in anyone’s life. So it’s time to start teaching them gently about a world where the rules of polite society, like the images in Persepolis, are more gray than black and white.