After a hearty lunch in Tehran, the men go off to sleep while the women wash the dishes. Marji prepares the samovar, steeping the tea for the proper forty-five minutes. She serves the older women in the drawing room, and thus begins an Olympic bout of trashtalking, Iranian style. “To speak behind others' backs is the ventilator of the heart,” says Marji's grandmother.
The scene is Tehran in the early 1990s. Marji, the child narrator of Marjane Satrapi's powerful cartoon novel, Persepolis, is now a young woman in her early twenties. Where Persepolis was a political novel that showed us the chaotic onset of the Iranian revolution through the eyes of a little girl, Embroideries is an intimate examination of sexual politics in post-revolutionary Iran.
Satrapi has a keen eye for the deceptions that men and women practice on one another in a society poised uneasily between tradition and modernity. Marji's grandmother tells the story of Nahid, an old friend who lost her virginity to her lover shortly before entering into an arranged marriage with a stranger. On the wedding night, Nahid tries to fake virginity by surreptitiously cutting herself with a razor blade. But her stroke goes awry in the dark, and she slices her husband's testicle instead. “They nevertheless lived their whole lives together!” one woman exclaims. “Men's pride is situated in their scrotums,” Marji's grandmother replies. “When
one finds oneself with a bloody testicle, it is preferable to keep one's mouth shut.” In other stories, men are the deceivers. A young
neighbor recounts her brief marriage to a wealthy émigré who decamped for Switzerland with all her wedding jewelry and then divorced her by mail.
Another overseas Iranian doesn't even bother to show up for his wedding in Tehran. The bride's parents place a framed photograph on the groom's seat at the wedding party. The bride then flies to London, where she discovers that her husband has sex with men and prefers to sleep under the nuptial bed, where he lets out cries like a jackal.
Satrapi has a neat way of using antique literary conventions to mirror how her characters adapt to changing social conventions. The cartoon novel may be a modern form, but her framing device of old friends telling stories at a party goes back to Boccaccio and Plato. Her title conjures a classical Persian poetry anthology or a Victorian essay collection, until we learn that “embroidery” is slang for having one's vagina sewn up in an effort to, once again, simulate virginity. “Women's morals are relaxing!” says one character. “Today's girls are no longer virgins before marriage. They do everything like men and get sewn up again to get married! This way, everyone is happy!” Everyone but the grim censors of the Islamic Republic, who would certainly ban this book if any local publisher dared to release an Iranian edition.
Yet contemporary politics are notably absent from Satrapi's narrative. The only sign that the revolution ever happened is that her female characters wear headscarves and enveloping black overcoats when they go out on dates. Which tells us something about the current state of revolutionary politics in Iran. For Satrapi and the disaffected Iranian generation that she represents, ignoring the regime is an eloquent political statement in itself.
Richard McGill Murphy is a senior editor at Fortune Small Business magazine, covering technology and politics.