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Local Iranians hope 'Persepolis' will open eyes about their homeland
By Matt Arado | Daily Herald Staff

In this scene from the film "Persepolis," the main character Marji is scolded by enforcers of the new Muslim regime in Iran for her Western clothes.


Elgin resident and Iran native Mooness Talebnia, who co-owns a chiropractic center in Hoffman Estates, says her classmates at Fremd High School were shocked at how "American" she seemed.


Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

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Published: 1/8/2008 12:18 AM

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On Mooness Talebnia's first day at Palatine's Fremd High School in 1989, her classmates couldn't believe she'd just moved to the U.S. from Iran.

Talebnia dressed just like the other students. She talked like them. She even liked the same kind of music.

"They really seemed shocked," said Talebnia, who now lives in Elgin and co-owns a chiropractic center in Hoffman Estates. "I think they expected someone from Iran to be so different. But here I was, wearing the same kinds of clothes and listening to Michael Jackson records. We were the same."

Nearly 20 years later, many Americans still have a distorted picture of Iran and its people, Talebnia and other Chicago-area Iranians say. They hope that will change with this month release of "Persepolis," an animated film based on a two-volume graphic novel about Iran by cartoonist Marjane Satrapi.

"Persepolis" is a fictionalized account of Satrapi's childhood in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution of 1979. With equal parts humor and anger, "Persepolis" shows how the restrictive changes enacted by the new regime -- women had to wear veils in public and all bilingual schools were closed, to list just two examples -- affected middle-class Iranians, most of whom were well-educated and surprisingly Westernized. (The main character, Marji, gets in trouble when she's spotted walking the streets wearing a denim jacket and new Nikes.)

"It's the most accurate portrayal I've seen of that time," Chicago resident Avisheh Mohsenin said of the graphic novel. "When a friend of mine told me to read it, I was like, 'I don't read comic books.' Then I read it in one sitting, and it brought about so much laughter and tears."

Mohsenin was about 6 years old when the revolution occurred. She remembers having to wear the veil to school each day, and worrying about loved ones' safety after seeing missiles flying through the sky during Iran's long war with Iraq. Her father, an economics professor, was jailed for 2½ years for his political ideas shortly after the revolution.

But there were good times, too. Mohsenin earned a degree in economics in Iran, and enjoyed a relatively happy life there before enrolling in a graduate program at Illinois State University. She moved to Chicago in 1999, and now works for an economic consulting firm.

"One thing I like most about 'Persepolis' is that it gives a more complete picture of Iran," she said.

Despite extremism in her native country, Mohsenin says many Iranians -- even women -- manage to build a good life there.

"People here sometimes assume that the society there is just so oppressive, that women are never educated and aren't allowed to do anything. But that's not so," Mohsenin said. "Iranian women go to college and can have a say in the running of their homes and society. What you see on the news (about Iran) is just the very top layer."

Susan Vahebi of Elgin was 9 at the time of the revolution. Like Mohsenin and Talebnia, she was astonished when she first read "Persepolis."

"It was my life exactly!" she said. "I wondered why it had never occurred to me to write it."

Vahebi moved to this country in 1997, and is now a U.S. citizen. She has a Ph.D. in physiology, and plans to travel to England soon to study medicine.

"My life was happy in Iran before the revolution," she said. "My parents were educated. I got to attend private school, where I learned two new languages. We were able to travel abroad to Europe or America once in a while. That's what Iran was like."

Vahebi remembers the new laws about dress and appearance being enacted. As shown in "Persepolis," enforcers of the new regime would drive around checking to make sure people were obeying.

"That was when I started to feel angry," she said. "The new rules were making me feel like I was in prison. Looking back, I feel like I lost a portion of my childhood, my youth."

Vahebi hopes those Americans who haven't read "Persepolis" will see the film version.

"I think Americans are generally very open-minded, but there isn't a lot on the news about the people of Iran, just its government," she said. "'Persepolis' shows how important it is to see that a country's government and its people can be different."