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So like a lot of rational people who believe that children should be exposed to the difficult truths of the wider world, I was appalled when Chicago Public Schools ordered the removal of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's acclaimed graphic novel about growing up in post-revolutionary Iran. This is America, where censorship pushes all of our buttons, and to ban Persepolis is to really hit the sweet spot between art and politics. When I reached out to Ario Mashayekhi, an artist who immigrated to Chicago from Tehran in 1976, I expected that he would validate my indignation, that he would be just as upset as I was.
"What's happening with Marjane's book is extremely normal," he says. "Censorship is not something new. It happens on and on and on. For the U.S., it's shocking. For me, it's expected."
Growing up in Iran, Mashayekhi wasn't encouraged to be an artist. Creative pursuits weren't considered worthy career options, and Islamic tradition doesn't allow for the creation of figurative art. (Beyond forbidding any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, something we're all familiar with due to high-profile cases like the Danish cartoon controversy, strict Islamic law discourages the depiction of all sentient beings because, as Mashayekhi explains, "humanity is an art, and you can't copy God.") He was allowed to paint landscapes, mainly because his family viewed it as little more than a benign hobby.
Mashayekhi came to Chicago to study engineering. Getting a visa was easy, he says, because the Shah was eager to be rid of students. Universities are traditionally where the groundswell of revolution begins. He'd been here for two years when the Iranian Revolution broke out in 1978, and he quickly realized the very real possibility that he would never return home. Concerned parents were sending their children out of the country en masse, a reality that Satrapi, separated from her family and sent to school in Austria, depicts in Persepolis. Stranded in the United States, Mashayekhi stopped studying engineering and began studying art.
He didn't set out to be a political artist. "I hate politics and I hate politicians," he says. "I just want to be left alone to do landscapes. But what choice do I have? Any art I do will be political because of who I am."
And perhaps that's the same fate that's befallen Persepolis. It's art that's too intertwined with politics to be considered on its own.
CPS hasn't been able to offer any satisfying reason for pulling the book from classrooms. They've pointed to graphic situations and objectionable language, but nobody's really buying that. "Talk to any kid," says Mashayekhi. "They say worse things all the time." What Mashayekhi is struck by is the timing. Persepolis was first published in English in 2003. "So why now?" he asks. "They could've pulled Persepolis the day it was published. But they didn't." Mashayekhi's theory is that any material that fosters sensitivity to a foreign point of view—especially an Iranian point of view—is considered dangerous. Iran is effectively an enemy of the United States, and tensions between the two countries are escalating. That's something that the government wants to make sure our children know.
Sound hysterical? The crackpot theory of some foreign-born painter?
"We understand why the district would be afraid of a book like this—at a time when they are closing schools—
because it's about questioning authority, class structures, racism, and gender issues. There's even a part in the book where they are talking about blocking access to education. So we can see why the school district would be alarmed about students learning about these principles."
That's the financial secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union, Kristine Mayle, in an interview she gave the Guardian.
The point is, it's difficult not to read politics into the book's confiscation—no matter what your politics are. And though Mayle's reading it on a municipal level while Mashayekhi has a global interpretation, they would likely agree—as would many of us—on the following point:
"What's happening to Marjane's book has nothing to do with protecting children," says Mashayekhi. "It's about controlling the flow of information."
He goes on: "Every government has a system for dealing with people. A way to control how much freedom they're given. Why does Congress have to talk for months and months about whether to add ten more cents to minimum wage? Because those workers are important—you don't want to pay them so little that you kill them, but you don't want to pay them so much that they have the power to come into the streets.
"Information works the same way."