On a recent Tuesday, when cadets filed into West Point’s Arnold Auditorium for the latest guest lecturer, many clutched a comic book. A dark-haired, energetic woman who looked half French intellectual, half punk-rock star, took the stage. The speaker was Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian expat from Paris and author of “Persepolis,” the autobiographical graphic novel she wrote about her childhood under the Islamic Revolution. All members of the U.S. Military Academy’s class of ’06 will have read and written about “Persepolis” for a course they must pass to graduate -- this comic book is a standard text at West Point.
“Cool shoes!” crooned junior Sarah Noyes. Satrapi resembles her own punk illustration of herself: messy hair, short skirt and enormous, platform-soled leather boots. In contrast, the cadets wore tidy gray-blue uniforms. But appearances can be deceiving. The students at West Point aren’t much older than the teenage Marjane was at the end of “Persepolis,” when her family sends her to Austria for her safety in the face of rising religious fundamentalism. Like Marjane at that young age, they face an uncertain, possibly dire future. “Here, you operate under the assumption you’re going to Iraq,” explains junior Andrew Pedersen.
Satrapi was in the U.S. to promote her third book, “Embroideries,” about three generations of Iranian women having an openly sexual conversation about men. She’d spent the morning being escorted around campus by cadets and later related a conversation about marshmallow fluff. “I told them I eat it with a spoon, which is not true. I put my fingers in the fluff,” Satrapi grinned. “They told me you have to make a whole sandwich with peanut butter and fluff, and it will taste gorgeous.”
Her talk, however, was anything but fluff. On stage, she praised the United States, saying, “It shows me the greatness of the democracy, because I’m someone from the ‘axis of evil’ being invited to the most prestigious military academy in America.” But she compared President Bush’s rhetoric to that of the Iranian mullahs. “Twenty-five years ago, they were saying, ‘Read the Koran, God is on our side,’ and ‘You are going to fight the big Satan.’ And the big Satan, they were you,” said Satrapi before a short, emotional pause. “And 25 years after, I hear the American government saying, ‘God is on our side,’ ‘Read the Bible’ and ‘We are going to fight the “axis of evil.” ’ [It] is the same words. But when it comes from an Iranian mullah, [it] is normal. An Iranian mullah is supposed to be a fanatic. It’s not normal when it comes from the biggest secular democracy in the whole world.”
Although “Persepolis” is considered literature, professors admit that it’s on the syllabus of this composition class partly because it’s entertaining and easy to read. Cadets have hours of drill and little time for long texts. Some don’t connect well with novels, and many learn in this class that their writing isn’t up to snuff, making this course, which deals with Iranian film and literature, a hard sell.
“But also, ‘Persepolis’ humanizes a nation we don’t look at particularly fondly,” said Lt. Col. Art Bilodeau, a West Point professor of English, at a reception before the talk. Bilodeau and his colleagues seem deeply committed to the project of “humanizing” cadets and their views. Numerous professors said one of their goals with this course was to have cadets look more tolerantly on the “other.”
“Persepolis” put a human face on Iran for the cadets. It was clear that Satrapi’s portrayal of herself and her world moved them, and many said they had not realized that Iran isn’t completely fundamentalist. “I got ‘Persepolis 2' through inter-library loan,” said Noyes. “I had to find out what happened to Marjane.” Pedersen had a more sober view. “No one [here] knows what they think of Iran. Tehran at nighttime looks like Detroit. Dark with lights.”
Satrapi had her eyes opened too. She cried onstage at the end of her talk, overcome with emotion. “I am reproaching to people [who say] the world is black and white,” she said afterward. “And the world is much more complicated. But I realize that I did not apply it to myself.... It put all my beliefs in general under question.”
She admitted having thought that all people in the military “were a little bit of mean people.” “And here I see the sweetest people possible.... From now on, each soldier, anywhere in the world, that will die, that will remind me that he was only 19 1/2 and had pink cheeks.”