What The World Needs Now…

Colored pencils, rendered in a more natural light process than usual.

Colored pencils, rendered in a more natural light process than usual.

It’s comic book shipping day, and this post sort of meanders through content…so bear with me, True Believers.

I just finished a unit on the graphic novel “Persepolis,” by Marjane Satrapi. If you aren’t familiar with it, Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel depicting the creator’s childhood up to her early teens in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution 9in the early 1980’s). The title is a reference to the ancient capital of the Persian Empire, which was called Persepolis. In a historical point about the publishing that seems strangely poignant right now, the French comics publisher L’Association published the original work in four volumes between 2000 and 2003. Pantheon Books (North America) and Jonathan Cape (United Kingdom) published the English translations in two volumes, in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Omnibus editions in French and English alike followed in 2007, coinciding with the theatrical release of the film adaptation. In October 2007, Pantheon repackaged the two English language volumes in a single volume (with film tie-in cover art) under the title The Complete Persepolis.

Last week, in fact, we finished reading the graphic novel in class. It’s powerful stuff, coming of age during wartime, in a culture that is completely alien to my students’ experience. We had to continuously cover historical and cultural context, but over all, the work was very well received by the classes. I think in part that is because the book addresses often controversial and graphic material head on…in my experience, young people generally like that. It’s as if they are in on the “adult stuff”…even if that stuff is often unpleasant.

Persepolis has been challenged as a school appropriate text multiple times….a fact I brought up at the beginning of the unit. Banned books always get better reception, I think. In March of 2013, the Chicago Public Schools controversially ordered copies of Persepolis to be removed from seventh-grade classrooms, after CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett determined that the book “contains graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use.” It was included on the American Library Association’s list of the 10 most frequently challenged books in 2014. It had been challenged for “gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint.”

I know for a fact that “gambling and offensive language” appeal to my students. I did have to sell the politics. Still…the unit went well. This week I am embroiled in a culminating project that I will speak more about tomorrow. For the moment, I want to stick to this…the content.

After a month of opening my students’ eyes to the idea that there is cultural and political diversity in the Middle East, the attacks on France happened. A tragic act of terror, to be sure…but almost equally sad was watching my students’ minds have a virtual “reset” button hit. In moments, every single discussion about the political and cultural diversity of the Middle East was washed away, and the default concept of the stereotypical Muslim Radical Terrorist was reinforced in their minds. It was sad to see happen.

That’s why I went with the art, as such. Persepolis is set in Iran…not really an Arab nation, but in the Middle East to be sure. There’s certainly nothing in the art and structure of Persepolis that fits in with the structure of Adequacy, which was a conceptual problem. I wanted to draw something with the positive images of the region, and went back to my affection for Disney’s “Aladdin.” Although a Disney film, it might be the most prominent positive reflection of the rich culture of the Middle East in some time. It of course reflects the “1001 Arabian Nights,” a fine work of literature unto itself.

The point is this: The vast majority of people living in the middle East are wonderful people. People like you and I, working hard and trying to pay the rent. Some of them are better people than you and I, some of them slightly worse. At the end of the day, they are people like us. That’s the vast majority of Islam, a religion of peace, and the vast majority of the people living in Islamic nations. It’s a tiny, radical number that commit these acts of terror, and sadly, those people get all the press.

I deplore the actions in France, both now, and in the bombing of Charlie Hebdo less than a year ago. More than that, I deplore judging an entire culture by its most destructive subset.

Since Persepolis is black and white, I intended this originally to be a black and white piece.

Since Persepolis is black and white, I intended this originally to be a black and white piece.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the anger at events such as have just happened, and forget to think practically. To think as if there are people involved, on both sides of any conflict. It’s very easy to want to react in that anger, as the young people in my classes do, instead of taking the harder road. The harder road is to actually attempt to think about the matter with kindness, or at least with some amount of reasoning. I have a friend who is a Persian American teacher, and was invaluable in assisting me with some of the viewpoints for my unit on Persepolis. As a modern American Muslim herself, navigating the Holiday season in the United States just became even more complex, with layers of cultural ignorance potentially added to the mix that would not have been present.

When I talk to this person, a fine intellectual, I don’t really perceive a whole lot of those cultural labels. Because she smart, funny, and kind, she became my friend first. I found out all of the cultural labels later. I always advise students to do this…be friends with people, not your ideas OF people.

That’s what this post is about. I think that as an educator, my views need to be carefully considered, because I am literally charged with shaping the future ideas of groups of young people. To that end, I have been thinking about this for days, and very carefully considering my words when asked my opinion. Ultimately, I think we need to fall back upon the gentle wisdom of Bill S. Preston (Esquire) and Ted “Theodore” Logan and let them guide us: “Be Excellent to each other.”

I’ve been saying that to students when asked. “Do you think we should go to war?” is a frequently asked hallway question, or after class. I’ve been replying that responding to the loss of life by taking more lives can’t be all that great an idea…but more importantly, in the here and now, right in front of us, we have an obligation to be excellent to each other. That we need to be concerned about each others’ welfare and well being, and learn to get along, more than worrying about revenge.

It’s why the art is positive. I considered going the Frank Miller route, as in his work entitled “Holy Terror”…but it didn’t feel right. In that, Frank Miller generalized every single Muslim on Earth as a sleeper agent for terror…and that was creepy and weird. I didn’t want to draw anything that even touched that sort of view, tangentially. Thinking backward to more positive depictions, I remembered liking the Carpet and Abu in Aladdin, and went from there. I instead wanted to draw a positive fantasy adventure of friendship, in a far off land.

Who doesn’t want that?

The city of Agrabah was actually done separately, and digitally composited.

The city of Agrabah was actually done separately, and digitally composited.

I’m not so sure if Robin Williams’ Genie could fulfill a wish for world peace. It seems to me that’s a lot more complex than making Aladdin into Prince Ali. Still, if my old blue friend were around, I think I’d see what he could do about it. In the end of that film, Aladdin’s wish is selfless…him being excellent to the Genie, who has become his true friend. A pretty good message, that one. With my wish for peach…at the very least, I’d be able to get one shining moment where people were excellent to each other…and maybe we could move on from there.

Next Issue: The House on Stockton!


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