The 2014 Living Book Project

Ramya Rao, Editor-in-Chief

Too often does a one-sided narrative come to define an entire culture in people’s eyes. The view of Iran as an oppressive theocracy has often obscured the country’s rich cultural history. On March 28th, however, students from across Long Island came together for “The Living Book Project” to discover the beauty of Iran through an exploration of the graphic novel The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

This project, initiated last year by Ward Melville AP English teacher Dr. Kelso, sought to bring students together to analyze the themes within the book while also dispelling false impressions of Iran that the book may have created. The event focused on going beyond the text of Persepolis, and delved deeper into Iranian culture in a multisensory experience. Students were exposed to a wide spectrum of Persian culture, sampling traditional foods, listening to Persian music, and looking at Persian art.

The Complete Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel which is unique in its way of tackling a variety of serious issues through a somewhat simplistic black-and-white comic book format. From identity crises to war and revolution, the main character and author Marjane Satrapi deals with many struggles in her life. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the government imposes oppressive laws, including forcing women to wear the veil. Against the backdrop of Iran’s political and social strife, the reader journeys with Marjane as she matures from an idealistic child seeking to be a prophet, into an independent woman who has experienced genuine hardship.

The day began with breakfast for the students , followed by an assembly featuring a short interpretive dance and a play acted by Ward Melville students.  During the dance, four Stony Brook students used a long black sheet representing the veil and its constraints to demonstrate the theme of public image versus private self from the novel.

Then, students Rose Kelso, Adity Sampath, Olivia Nelson, Kiana Roach, Sabrina Cohn, Donald DellaPietra, Sage Beasley, Emily Farquhar, and Jeremey Rahner,  summarized the events in the novel through a charismatic theatrical performance. The play emphasized the changing identity of Marjane through the novel by dividing the role of Marjane into four characters. The performance was met with enthusiasm from the students, some even proclaiming that it was as good if not better than the novel itself.

After the assembly, the students were divided into groups and assigned to workshops which included various activities, ranging from discussions on philosophy to decorating masks.

“The individual sessions helped us use other ideas outside of the text so that we can tie them back to the novel and understand it better,” explained group leader Seneca Sanders.

While the workshops valued the truth and themes of Satrapi’s individual story, many also sought to unveil the realities of Iran in the present day. There were three workshops entitled ‘Iran Today’ which aimed to unveil the reality of Iran in the present day. Satrapi’s narrative portrays Iran as a country of severe gender inequity and oppression, detailing the executions and torture of several people that she knew. Such information allowed people to judge Iran based on its political history rather than its role in the world today. The event displayed the beauty of Iranian culture in a manner that was eye-opening to many students who believed Iran to be the terrifyingly dangerous setting of Satrapi’s novel.

“I’m so glad I had this opportunity to clarify some misconceptions people have about Iran and teach them about how Iranians, especially women, are today,” said Vahideh Rasekhi, the head of the workshop ‘Iran Today.’ During her workshop, students were asked to present their ideas of what they believed Iran was like currently. Many students believed that women were heavily oppressed, could not be seen in public with men who they were not related to, and forced to cover their hair and bodies. Through a PowerPoint and video presentation, she dispelled many of these widely entrenched and biased opinions to show the beauty of Iran and the freedoms gained by women since the 1979 Revolution.

The day ended with students from each group going to the stage to explain what they learned from the novel in an activity which demonstrated the knowledge they had gained from the novel and through the day’s workshops.

Dr. Kelso, a Ward Melville AP English Language teacher who initiated the Living Book Project, provided her thoughts on the success of the event: “I felt proud of Friday’s program.  This year’s program was a great example of what happens when schools, teachers, universities, professors and community members pull together.  One amazing part of the process is that everyone does the work they do out of the goodness of their heart, out of a true desire to work with students, to tell their stories and to share their knowledge.  This is collaboration on a broad sense based on peoples’ desires to build community.  The program begins almost a year before the day of the event.  Reaching out to schools and teachers, reaching out to people who will run workshops takes many months and I enjoy every moment of the process.  I am constantly learning throughout it all!”

Junior Sabrina Cohn summarized the day best when she simply stated that “the worst part of the day was when it had to end.”