Zahra’s Paradise: A Lens into Iran
Written by Amir & Illustrated by Khalil
Release Date: September 13, 2011
First Second Publications
B&W Hard Cover Graphic Novel | 272 pages
Over the weekend I had the pleasure of reading Zahra’s Paradise, a graphic novel by Amir and Khalil. Set within the context of Iran’s disputed 2009 election, it looks at the peaceful protests that followed and the government’s brutal crackdown that left dozens dead.
Using a mix of fiction and non-fiction, Zahra’s Paradise weaves a tale of real people and events shared through the voice of a single family.
Zahra’s Paradise follows a mother and son team – Zahra and Hassan – as they navigate the browning hedges of Iran’s political, judicial, societal, and cultural maze in search of a missing son and brother.
Between the novel’s beautifully illustrated panels and poignant dialogue, I found myself again immersed in the original days of Iran’s protests. I re-watched millions of Iranians take to the streets peacefully to raise their voices and cringed again as they were met with violence.
There it was again: the secret prisons, the batons and tear gas, the reports of rape, the fees for removing bullets from corpses, the young cut down by oppression, the old beaten into submission. I found myself seated with Zahra and Hassan in every waiting room, standing with them at every prison and hospital, and searching with them at every morgue.
It became the story of many families – mine, yours, theirs. Though the novel reflects the journey of only one family, it is hard to miss that the story is not singular. Across Iran – from villages to cities, from green mountains to dry deserts – families have faced their own devastating renditions. One family’s question remains that of too many Iranians today. Where is my child? Where is my parent? Is this really our Iran?
“The spark for Zahra’s Paradise came from [the people of Iran],” Amir – the book’s author – shares, “and if we have succeeded in capturing their reflection in our story, then the story will act as a mirror and guide the spark back to the fire from which it sprang.”
U4I: What as the driving force behind the book?
As far as Khalil [the book’s illustrator] and I are concerned, the true authors of Zahra’s Paradise are the people inside Iran. They are the ones who have had an impact on us, and the rest of the world, not the other way round. They are the ones who went into the streets, held up their cell phones, documented their stories, captured and reflected each other’s presence in a world defined by absence.
Neda’s story, and all the other ones, were often purchased at a great price. The canvass upon which they cried for justice and freedom was their bodies and the ink was their blood and tears – their yearning and their love for life, their demand for dignity, their courage and their majesty. They are the ones whose faith in life shook the foundations of death and deceit, not only in Iran, but also throughout the Arab world and beyond. So in a way, all of us live inside their Iran. The spark for Zahra’s Paradise came from them, and if we have succeeded in capturing their reflection in our story, then the story will act as a mirror and guide the spark back to the fire from which it sprang.
U4I: How does using the graphic-novel-as-medium elevate its impact? What advantages do you think there are to presenting in this way?
When it comes to protest, the graphic novel is the ultimate weapon: fast, easy, flexible, cheap and accessible. When you are making a documentary film, you are constrained by the demands of the camera. You have to be present at an event at the time it happens. Light, sound, film can all conspire against you. You need a crew. And it all costs money. Not so with the graphic novel. All you need to do is imagine reality – so your lens can be as wide and open as all your senses. And all you need is a pen or a pencil. So the form is an expression of freedom. And, unlike traditional journalism, you are not bound by space or time. So you can move your spirit into Kahrizak or Evin prison without seeking anyone’s permission.
Where there is a constraint, at least for me, it was having to write in tiny blurbs, but that too is like haiku. It forces you to distill your feelings and ideas down to their essence. And that’s also wonderful because it saves your reader an enormous amount of time, but they can absorb ten times the emotional and intellectual force of a long novel. In a world that moves very fast, no one has the time to read Tolstoy or the patience to be Tagore. But you can still turn to literature to pack a punch.
U4I: Who is the book’s intended audience? What do you hope different audience targets will glean from the graphic novel?
I wish I knew. You don’t write with a target audience in mind. You write because you have to write. You write because entire worlds are buried in you and entire worlds are born through you. You write because you love, and because words can breath life into what you love. You write because what you love is in danger of dying, or may have died, and you cannot accept its death as final. You write because you grieve. And because your grief is your guide and your gift.
U4I: We were interested in the novel, not only for it’s beautiful graphics and story, but also because as a grassroots network focused on human rights in Iran, we are always looking for new ways to highlight the situation. What can you tell us about the incorporation of Iran’s ongoing human rights crisis into the graphic novel?
I must confess that I learned the bulk of what I know about human rights in a lemonade factory. My job was a notch above Charlie Chaplin’s in Modern Times. I had to spend every day following the journey of lemonade cans through the factory. The idea was to integrate departments–from sales and marketing to production and quality control, to accounting and shipping. Now, if you had a [good] process, and everyone worked together openly and honestly, your cans of lemonade would go out in the world, make people happy, and make you and everyone in the factory proud, prosperous, and peaceful.
But, if for any reason, your cans of lemonade were damaged, say you put glue inside them instead of lemonade, people would send them back to the factory. You had broken your promise to deliver lemonade, and so quite naturally, they would lose faith in your brand of lemonade and demand a refund, plus damages for their glued lips, tongues and bellies.Now giving the refund was the easy part, but figuring out what had gone wrong in the factory was the hard part. Everyone pretended that the problem did not exist. They did not want to accept responsibility, as that could mean having the costs deducted from their budget, getting fired, sued and so forth. It was quite natural and rational to cover up the problem.
But denial only delayed the inevitable–the repeat of the disaster. And so more bad lemonade would go out into the world, more people would get sick, the costs would rise, the stress would increase, the lies would grow and the brand would decline, faith would diminish. All cans of lemonade and all the processes of the factory would become suspect, the departments would wage war against each other and everyone would become complicit in their own demise. All because no one had the authority or capacity to inspect all the processes, figure out what had gone wrong with the first damaged can of lemonade.
Now imagine how much greater the stakes are when a factory claims to have processes that protect and enrich life by delivering justice. And now imagine that they call those processes religion, and claim that they are making the product in the name of the founder of that religion. Now imagine a judicial system that is tainted by the Kahrizak prison scandal–a factory where the rape, torture and murder of detainees is covered up as “meningitis” by prison doctors. Virtually everyone can become exposed to and complicit in all the damage taking place in the factory. Who would be able to survive in such a dreadful environment without catching meningitis?
Click here to purchase the graphic novel or click here to read it online. A PDF version of the book release’s press advisory can be found here. And make sure to join the discussion on the Zahra’s Paradise Facebook page!
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