What on earth do these mannequins have to do with Persepolis?

Thinking in Public
Image depicts the interior of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Photo by William Brangham, PBS NewsHour, 2015.

The U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, has been closed since April 7, 1980.

The building remains open to the public as an eerie quasi-museum with anti-American murals, cases showing supposed surveillance equipment collected by the CIA, photographs of the revolution, and rooms recreating suspected secret meetings with staged mannequins. Iranians refer to the embassy as the “Den of Spies,” though it no longer conjures up images of James Bond-esque adventures. Instead, the building stands in for current Iranian and American relations; dilapidated and perhaps past the point of repair. Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis (2000), similarly captures how this deteriorated geopolitical relationship affects individual Iranians.


Named for Persepolis, an ancient Persian city in the Achaemenid Empire, Satrapi’s novel is a coming-of-age narrative that documents Satrapi’s childhood before and after the Iranian Revolution.


The Revolution began on November 4, 1979, when Iranian dissidents stormed the “Den of Spies.” President Carter had allowed the deposed Iranian Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, into America for cancer treatment. Some revolutionaries viewed this action as the U.S. plotting the Shah’s return to power. They took 66 people hostage. Thirteen were soon deemed subjects of “the oppression of American society”—women, African-Americans, and non-U.S. citizens. One man was released for medical treatment. The remaining 52 hostages were held captive for 444 days—until January 20, 1981.


The western hostages’ stories are often the only ones told by western media (see films like Ben Affleck’s Argo). As Satrapi’s Persepolis points out, we often neglect to discuss the impact of the hostage crisis on Iran, as the student fanatics were not representative of all Iranians. Satrapi created Persepolis as a political project as well as an exploration of her personal experiences with western ignorance regarding her culture.


Satrapi emigrated to France from Iran in her twenties. In interviews, she tells the anecdote of how Europeans would frequently profile her, assuming she spoke Arabic. However like most Iranians, Satrapi grew up speaking Persian. She reminds us how easy it is to perpetuate stereotypes without shielding readers from the realities of the Revolution. In the preface, Satrapi explains, ““[Iran is an] old and great civilization [that] has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. This is why writing Persepolis was so important to me. I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists.”


The Satrapis—like many Iranians—suffered as a result of the Iranian hostage crisis.  In the year following the safe return of the U.S. embassy hostages, an estimated 2,946 Iranians were executed. Within two years that number rose to 7,746 people. The Revolution also incited Iran’s invasion of Iraq in 1980 and led to an estimated 100,000 Iranian casualties during the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted 8 years.


Since April 7, 1980, the Iranian embassy in Washington D.C. has been officially closed—severing communication between the two countries permanently. To this day, neither country deals directly with the other but instead are represented by emissaries.


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