Monday, April 29, 2013

Reading about other cultures in Spanish

I have introduced resources for the Spanish bilingual and IB classes: short stories, novels, short films, feature films, etc. Obviously the list can be endless. I also think that we need to be open to new materials for our classes without forgetting the classics. I would suggest we keep a balance between "modern" and "classical" materials.

Any time we use a resource from one of the Spanish speaking countries we are obviously opening the doors to a cultural component that our students are happy to learn about. But today my recommendation goes in a slightly different direction. We are going to learn about  the history of a person from another culture who continues to be an influential figure in the world. Students will realize that Spanish can be a resource to explore other cultures, can be a working tool and the language to enjoy literature written in neither English nor Spanish.

Persepolis (1-4) is a series of graphic novels published originally in French by Iranian born writer Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis was the name given by the Greek 2,500 years ago to the capital of the ancient Persian Empire. I am sure that the choice of the title is not a coincidence but a way of linking the author's personal story with the millenarian history and tradition of her country.

Persepolis is a series of four graphic novels divided into short chapters. The series tells us the autobiographical history of the writer, Marjane Satrapi, from 1979 when she is 10 years old until ten years later just before the moment she travels to France to continue her studies.
Through her eyes we witness all the political and social changes that take place in Iran and how they affect the Iranian citizens, the neighbour countries and also the rest of the world, included the western powers.
Thanks to Marjane we learn that in 1979 the head of the state shah Reza Pahlavi had to flee the country due to popular pressure. We also learn that, despite his apparent tolerance, he was just a dictator who got to power supported by Great Britain and did not respect the human rights of the citizens of Iran. The big oil companies got succulent contracts and the majority of the population lived in poverty. As soon as the shah leaves the country, a civil war  starts and soon an Islamic republic is founded. Life gets even harder for everyone, especially for women. Soon everyone has to get adjusted to a different life full of religious fanaticism. At this time, the problems with western countries and USA get deeper and the population suffers for it. Marjane, used to speak up her mind, stifles in this more and more fanatic society.
Things go from bad to worse when the war with neighbour Iraq starts. Thousands of young boys from the poor social classes, almost children, are sent to fight with a key around their neck. The key that will open the door of paradise for them. Under these circumstances Marjane, who has always received a liberal education, is sent to Austria when she is 14 to continue her studies. In Vienna she will find the difficulty to adjust to western culture and will suffer the racism of the Europeans. She goes back to Iran to start university in Tehran 4 years later. Although she is is happy to be back to her family and friends she hardly recognizes her country after 8 years of Islamic revolution and the war with Iraq. The social differences continue even bigger and life for women, especially young women, is particularly unjust.
Marjane tries to fit back in her country. She studies art at the university after a hard enrolment process which includes a religious assessment. At university she meet Reza, who will become her husband when both are still students. Their relationship fell apart after their wedding and although they work in cultural projects together, Marjane knows that it is over. Unable to fit in a society that denies women's rights, obsessed with the tragedies caused by the war with Iraq, she decides to continue her studies in France and start a new life.
The novels in Spanish are linguistically accessible for students in the high grades of a bilingual or IB program and some issues that students study in other subject areas appear in the novels:
  • The totalitarian regimes
  • Revolutionary processes in third world countries
  • Freedom of speech and belief: religious fanaticism
  • Colonialism and the role of the big corporations
  • The lack of women's rights in some regimes
  • The natural resources and its influence in a global world
  • The role of the western countries in the development of democracies in countries in Asia and Africa
  • The role of education to make a more just and egalitarian society
The story is attractive and the main character gains our support and sympathy from the first page. The novels gives a deep insight of events that took place not long ago and have affected the world since then. The topics that appear in the novels are very relevant in the curriculum of Alberta and can be used to promote discussions, debates and research projects. For all this and because our students will enjoy the graphic novels, they can a great resource to work with our Spanish class. Even though the story does not happen in a Spanish speaking country, we all have been affected by these events in more and more global world.

In 2007 a film based on the graphic novels was released in France. The original writer co-wrote the screenplay and co-directed the film, which gained  general recognition except in Iran. The film was released in black and white, like the graphic novel. The Spanish version is available in YouTube: