Although Nessma representatives told The Atlantic that Persepolis was translated into Tunisian Arabic and prepped for air long before, Persepolis made its contentious TV debut in October 2011, just around the time Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda won a majority of the seats in Tunisian parliament. Some observers took the film's airing so soon before Ennahda's win as a political statement, associating Tunisia's newly empowered Islamist leaders with Iran's theocratic dictatorship. Indeed, Tunisia's Islamist leaders have since reportedly praised Iran's Islamic revolution as an exemplary "anti-hegemonistic"' movement.
The trial comes at a time when many post-revolutionary Arab states exist in uneasy tension with their artists. Egypt, now ruled by a Muslim Brotherhood majority in its parliament, overturned a three-month prison sentence Thursday for 71-year-old comedic actor Adel Imam for "insulting Islam" with films like the canonical 1992 satire Terrorism and Kebab (El Erhab W'El Kebab). In Morocco, Casablancan rapper El-Haqed (as also known as L7a9ed) was jailed for rap supporting the nation's protest movement. His trial, which is pending, has gained international attention.
In the Tunisian case, Persepolis drew outrage for scenes in which God visits the young Satrapi in her dreams--and appears in human form, violating one of Islam's most famous taboos for artists. Nessma representatives told The Atlantic that only some 50,000 households tuned in to the broadcast, and that the film had already been shown in theaters in Tunisia and across the Arab world. Nevertheless, incensed Salafists set fire to the Nessma TV's offices shortly after Persepolis went to air in October 2011, leading prosecutors to also charge Karoui with "inciting public disorder."
Nessma employees said the airing of Persepolis was, indeed, partly politically motivated.
"We wanted to start a debate," Nessma journalist Jamel Arfaoui told The Atlantic in January. "We wanted to tell Tunisians, 'You have to be very careful [with ideology].' They need to learn that you have to stay moderate and vigilant."
In the film, the young Marjane Satrapi struggles to express herself in the early days of the Islamic Republic, when the American punk rock and metal that she listened to were damned as signs of Western decadence by moral authorities. Satrapi, who visited the U.S. last week to discuss her film, declined to comment on controversy the film has sparked in Tunisia, but other experts say they see why the film touched a nerve in the country.
While the newly empowered Tunisian Islamist government hasn't yet had an opportunity to formerly posture itself as a dictatorship or democracy, Geneive Abdo, head of the Iran department at the Washington, D.C.-based Middle East Institute, said that the Persepolis trial "doesn't bode well for freedom of expression."