Leo Hochberg: Comparing Archaic Revivalism and Islamic Traditionalism in “Persepolis” and “The Mantle of the Prophet”

“My mother and the servants who had been brought from Iran would tell me the deeds and fates of our legendary kings and heroes. To them these fearless champions had really existed and were part of our history. Hence my surprise when in grade two in the French Lyceé of Beirut (I was six years old) I noticed that our teacher did not mention them in his version of Iran’s history. To my query she answered: ‘Oh that! It’s mythology!’ At home my nanny shrugged her shoulders: ‘You teachers is an ignorant! Don’t listen to her!’,” (Hoveyda vii).

In the 1930’s, Iran entered a curious phase of Revivalism, in which ancient figures from the nation’s pre-Islamic past were exalted as heroes to rival Hossein. To some, these people were myths; stories passed from mother to daughter generation upon generation, but each knowing that the story would never be the same as the telling before. To others, Cyrus the Great, Darius, and the others were all real figures which had made Iran the nation that it is. Fervent nationalism soon wrapped itself thickly within a cultic reverence for famous figures that were supposedly responsible for the very heart of all Iranian love of country. And even though such great Kings as Cyrus never knew the enlightenment of Hossein and the Prophet, he was certainly a symbol of Iran’s strength, national pride, and historic influence on the entirety of Asia. In reading both Persepolis and Mantle of the Prophet, I came to understand that the narrative of Archaic Revivalism in the pre-revolutionary part of the 20th century is essential to understanding motivation behind what would soon become fervent Islamism. Cyrus, is seems, was at the center of a new generation of Iranian character, and Hossein, an immemorial representative of the character Iran had always had.

A certain illumination is shed upon the paradox of past and present. Pahlavi and the secular monarchs of Iran were heavily focused on reverence of pre-Islamic figures such as Darius. This may be viewed as an abiding belief in the Empire; that notion that Iran is a land whose strength is immemorial, and therefore must be hailed as a reverential home to greatness. Such an ideology rejects the Shi’i Iran in favor of the Persian Iran. Khomeini and other Islamists, however, believed that the national identity was rooted firmly in Shi’ism – any figures revered other than the Prophet, Hossein, and the Imams, were idolatrous at least, and pantheist at most. Persia was therefore considered an irrelevant shadow beneath Islamic identity.

As this represents a battle for the very heart of Iran (which, until 1935, was referred to internationally as Persia), it seems only appropriate that the chapter of Marjane Satrapi’s book that covers this dichotomy is also titled Persepolis. To my understanding, this is both a reference to Pasargadae’s physical closeness to the city, and to the importance of Cyrus in forming modern Iran. Satrapi splits the chapter into two stories. The first tells of the Shah exclaiming his vision for the country – one of complete modernization and secularization. This he preaches atop a podium displaying the winged angel of Ahura Mazda, which remains a symbol of Iran’s Persian influences to this day. On the next page, the Shah kneels at the tomb of Cyrus the Great, saying “Cyrus, rest in peace, we are looking after Persia,” (Satrapi 28). Beneath his feet, a dead Cyrus glared angrily at him, unable to express his anger at the Shah’s militant secularism. Finally, a brief scene is shown depicting the great national parades and celebrations around Cyrus’ birthday.

Satrapi’s depiction of the Shah’s archaic revivalism belies a certain disdain for his obsessive reverence. Indeed, the king preached a belief in modernization and secularism while maintaining a pseudo-religious respect for the Persian Iran over the modern Islamic Iran. Yet by portraying Cyrus’ disapproval of the Shah, Satrapi comments that attempting to find modernization by reaching back to a pre-modern and pre-Islamic empire is inherently anathema to advancement of the modern nation. The roots of Shi’ism run far too deep into the Iranian plateau for there to be any possibility of secularizing modernization. Furthermore, forcing secularization in the name of ancient heroes would only weaken Iran by threatening the established national (read: Muslim) identity. Even though the Kings of old may have physically represented the Shah’s Persia, claiming their influence as a path to modernization only makes a hypocrisy of modern Iran, which was built by Islam. How, Satrapi seems to ask, could the Shah build a new Iran out of Persian secularism when the old Iran’s bricks and mortar were Shi’i? Without its religion, what would Iran be but a nation locked into an empire so ancient that its heroes were half myth and half real?

And indeed, this is what came back to bite the monarchy in 1979. Once Iran could no longer stand the oppression of its Islamic side under the heel of its Persian side, those who could be considered traditional modernists (those who believed in the modern post-Muhammad Iran, but still advocated for a return to those Islamic values) forced a return to Iran as it was prior to the Shah – a nation grounded not in Persia, but in the Shi’ism that had guided it until Western powers brought Reza Shah to the throne.

However, that is not to say that ardent Islamism would have created a powerful and modernized Iran either. Satrapi approaches this with a similar wariness. This is the topic of the second story of the chapter, which details a near-comical encounter between some Islamist protestors and a dead body. As hospital workers are carrying the body outside, a group of revolutionaries mistake it for the body of a man slain by soldiers. They hoist it valiantly atop their shoulders and begin to parade through the streets, calling the man a martyr who died for the cause. That is, of course, until they are stop by the man’s widow. “Are you a royalist?” they ask her. “No,” she replies, “but my husband died of cancer”. The crowd has a moment of confusion before they tell her, “No problem. He’s [still] a hero.” In the next frame, the widow is seen parading down the street with the revolutionaries, enjoying the knowledge that her husband indeed died a brave martyr of the revolution.

Here, one could say that Satrapi is making a statement on the trap of Islamic fundamentalism that spun the Revolution so wildly out of control. As mentioned previously, secularization presented tangible dangers – one cannot remove Iran from Shi’ism without threatening the bedrock upon which the country stands. But that does not mean that Iran’s national identity should rest entirely on Shi’i Islam either. As evidenced by such phenomena as Khomeini’s law of the juror and the reinstating of the Qur’anic penal code (which, if taken literally, is extremely harsh), relying on religious identity as the sole arbiter of the nation is just as dangerous as trying to eradicate it.

The near-cultic fervor of fundamentalism is what Satrapi is trying to access in this oddly comical story concerning a dead man and his widow. The popularity of the revolution fed on a deep-seated need for identity amongst common people as they watched Shi’ism, the institution which had formed much of their social and religious lives, be torn down. The widow, who was forced to feel the death of the life she lived, is brought quickly into the fundamentalist fold because it offers a consoling community that exalts her loss. The allure of religious fundamentalism becomes especially strong with the advent of martyrdom, which upholds the importance of the ultimate sacrifice. The widow is able find particular meaning in the death of her husband, as can so many others who lost their family members to Pahlavi’s despotic regimen of modernization.

In practice, this speaks to a Satrapi’s own perspective on the essential motivations behind the revolution; a need for identity amongst the Iranian people that ran counter to the Shah’s failed secularism. Islamic identity, she claums, lies at the very heart of the Khomeini’s religious agenda. A given society will travel along the general course of progress – towards human rights and liberation, and against fundamentalism – if it does not face interference. This is not to claim that Islam is against progression, but rather that fundamentalism (be it Islamic, Christian, or of any other religion) runs directly counter to the standard motion of a society. Furthermore, toxic fundamentalism is a direct reaction to any attack on the beliefs of a common group. The attack came in the form of forced secularization of a non-secular nation, and the response was forced Islamism of a non-Islamic government. Thus, when the people of Iran demanded a fundamentalist revolution, it was not for want of any despotism, but for a need to hold onto an identity that had nearly been torn away by cultic modernization and Western imperialism.

Ultimately, Persepolis seeks to highlight the dangers of both archaic revivalism and Islamic traditionalism. Neither is presented as a panacea for the woes of a nation-state so engrossed in the politics of its mullahs and politicians. Satrapi’s ideology, however, does not say that Iran had no chance at modernization – in fact, the plateau always guarded potential to grow the fruits of democracy and equality, but characterizing the nation out of either secularization or Islamism was doomed to fail. Iran demands a fundamental need for both the Islam and Persia, for Hossein and Cyrus, for the political nation and the religious community. These, ultimately, are what make Iran whole, and should either be removed, the toxicity of fundamentalism is sure to follow.

While Satrapi offers a personal perspective on the diametric opposition of Islamic traditionalism and archaic revivalism, Mottahedeh sees the rebirth of Persian heroism as an arbiter for international influence and neo-nationalistic cultism. Here, it is important to note that Mottahedeh’s job is not to be subjective. The historical narrative he describes is one walled in facts and grounded in evidence. Each development of the Revolution is presented for good or ill – and scarcely does any personal commentary enter the historical narrative. It is for this reason that I do not offer Mottahedeh’s perspective per say, but rather his narrative, of Iran’s battle between pre-and-post-Islamic influences.

This dichotomy between Shi’i Iran and Persian Iran is explained first through the story of Al-e Ahmad, a prominent scholar from the second half of the 20th century. His earlier work largely concerned the role of the government in supporting the ‘forgotten’ Iranians; those native villagers, working class citizens, and poor religious Shi’i that subsisted throughout the first half of the century with little to no attention from the Shah. His work at first remained relatively quiet on the Iran’s external relationships, but as time continued Ahmad began to write more about the near-idolatrous connection between Iran and the Western powers that be, outlining the government cult of archaic revivalism as a manifestation of a much wider problem.

This ultimate problem he titles Euromania: “mania for honoring the ancient past… a mania for showing off in front of strangers, for competing in boasting vaingloriously and stupidly of Cyrus and Darius, and for basking proudly in Rostam’s reflected glory,” (Mottahedeh 312). To Ahmad, the cult of Persian heroism was more an exploitation of a national history for the good of the state than a ‘revival’ of a long lost character. And indeed, to the majority of Iranian intelligentsia at the time, Persia had become of less and less interest. The nation was so thoroughly shaped by Shi’ism that there was simply no need for historic obsessions beyond the simple want for an empiric pride. Any mentions of Cyrus, Rostam, and Darius were glorified allusions to a The Book of Kings, which held not a shred of the Qur’an’s sanctity.

And yet, it was amongst the Ahmad’s ‘forgotten’, less educated common folk that the cult of heroism took root. Here there is a distinct split between Satrapi’s and Mottahedeh’s representations of revivalism. Whereas Persepolis presents the two as opposed by characterizing them in two separate stories, The Mantle of the Prophet characterizes the conflict through cultural trends. For example, it was in the 1930’s that the cult of heroism first began to take off. As a result, parents began giving their children Persian names. The number of children named Cyrus and Darius skyrocketed – these were kids raised in pro-Shah households that embraced Persian-ness or, as Ahmad would have called it, Euromania. Many were either secular or in poor observance, and thus they were far more likely to embrace Iran as a political empire rather than a religious body.

Mottahedeh identifies the opposition as the “Mohammeds, Hosains, and Fatemehs”, who came from traditional religious backgrounds, and thus were more apt to support Islamic traditionalism. Furthermore, it was the pious that were most likely to detest King worship, as a popular Hadith marked it as wicked. These two groups, the Cyruses and the Mohammeds, replace the more culturally subjective distinctions of revolutionary and royalist in Satrapi’s illustrations with broader cultural identifiers. In subtracting the nomenclature used in Persepolis, Mottahedeh maintains a removed and objective view of two diametrically opposing camps.

This affirms the most distinct stylistic differences in each representation of Islamic traditionalism and archaic revivalism. Satrapi ultimately cannot separate her own experience from her writing, nor was that her goal in writing Persepolis. Thus, the oppositional Iran’s – the Persian past and the Shi’i present – are brought to light via her own characteristic experiences. In this, one may observe an expression of caution towards both the pre-revolutionary government and the Khomeini’s regime. This, I believe, is a product of her own experience as a child of the Revolution – she saw, first hand, the dangers of each, and therefore the most effective way of illustrating the Iran she knew is by drawing from her own personal experience. The stands in contrast to Mottahedeh’s style, which seeks to describe Iran’s political camps through as removed a perspective as possible.

The Mantle of the Prophet is experience-far; in fact, the entire story of Ali and all subsequent research is all reflective of real people that Mottahedeh interviewed, but there is no sense of self throughout the book. By this, the author fulfills an entirely different purpose. He may lose the sense of closeness and personality inherent in Satrapi’s illustrations, but makes the story of Iran’s battle between past and present accessible to everyone. The average international reader is exactly as experience-far as The Mantle of the Prophet; therefore, being able read through the eyes of a reliable but removed narrator commits the reader to an unbiased look at the revolution.

Ultimately, The Mantle of the Prophet and Persepolis fulfill different purposes, but they each reveal the complexity of Iranian national identity through their exploration of archaic revivalism and Islamic traditionalism. The Shah attempted to secularize a Shi’i nation through cultic hero worship, until Shi’is could no longer stand by and watch the suppression of their religion. In response, they opted for complete Islamization, and attempted to tear up revivalism from its roots. Both ultimately collapsed into oppression because the nation-state of Iran is both Islamic and Persian. They are two separate root systems entangled between each other to the point of indistinguishability, and were one to pull out either, they would inevitably pull out the other as well.

Today, despite Khomeini’s repression of revivalism, Iran still seeks a balance between the two. Hassan Rouhani announced this year that paying homage to Cyrus in Pasargadae would be prohibited throughout the year. This, evidently, was an attempt to limit hero worship which had been so representative of the Shah’s regime. Yet, there are still Cyruses and Dariuses are born to Iran every day, as there are Mohammeds, Hossains, and Fatimehs. Banning the pilgrimage did not stop Cyrus the Great’s tomb from being even more overcrowded than it had been in previous years. This aptly describes how fundamentally inextricable Persia is from Shi’i Iran. One may try to oppress the other, but neither can ever be eradicated. This is the truth of modern Iran; it is, has been, and always will be a nation born of Persia, but lived in Islam.

 

 

Hoveyda, Fereydoun. “Preface.” The Shah and the Ayatollah: Iranian Mythology and Islamic Revolution. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. Viii. Print.

Satrapi, Marjane. “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood.” AbeBooks. Pantheon, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.

Mottahedeh, Roy P. The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran. Oxford: Oneworld, 2000. Print.