Two years a ago, the New York Times printed a short article announcing that First Second Books would be publishing a web comic “about Iran, exploring social, political and human rights issues there.” Two days later, a web comic entitled, Zahra’s Paradise began posting at www.zahrasparadise.com. In September 2011, that web comic was finally published as a graphic novel. Zahra’s Paradise is written by Amir and Khalil; authors who have chosen to remain anonymous. Amir is an Iranian-American activist and writer. Khalil is the novel’s artist. Zahra’s Paradise is Khalil’s first graphic novel.
With the perspective of time, one can see the significance of the past two years in Iran and the Middle East. Governments have been overthrown, leaders have been replaced, and the violence continues in Syria. Zahra’s Paradise, written in response to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection and during the heat of the Arab Spring, is a timely reminder of the horrors of oppression and the real human lives that it affects. It is literary appeal that acts as a mediator to represent the peoples of Iran while also memorializing those who have died during their struggles.
The story begins on June 16, 2009, following one of the many protests that were held in response to Ahmadinejad’s reelection as President of Iran. As the story starts, the narrator, Hassan Alavi, and his mother, Zahra Alavi, wait in vain for Medhi, their brother and son, to return. Zahra’s Paradise is their search to find him. Though the story follows that of a mother and son, the true characters of the novel are that of the people of Iran. The plot acts as a means to introduce the reader to many different archetypes of those suffering under the Islamic Republic. Among the many characters are Zahra’s Armenian best friend, Miriam, Taymoor Kahn, the owner of a copy shop, and his daughter. We meet a taxi cab driver that in stand still traffic, leaves his car to bring his passengers watermelon juice, to which he comments, “This is what Iran runs on [--not oil]!” We also meet Iranian/Persian poets Omar Khayyan and Hafez through their oft-quoted words. Each character, each reference serves to illustrate that the people of Iran are not terrorist. They are not all Holocaust deniers or genocidal maniacs. They are people under control of a radicalized religion.
One cannot read Zahra without comparing it to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Persepolis, like Zahra, takes place in Iran and is also a graphic novel. But there are differences as well. Persepolis is the story of a young girl, excited by the Western world, but suddenly trapped by what she sees as an oppressive Islamic Regime at the outset of the Islamic Revolution. Moments like when Satrapi’s parents smuggle a Kim Wilde poster from Turkey by sewing it into their luggage show the humor of their circumstances as seen through the eyes of a younger Satrapi, and yet she takes her topic very seriously.
There are lighter moments in Zahra’s Paradise as dissidents rail against the government, but very somber moments as well. As Hassan and Zahra travel through the city, they make trips to prison, to the morgue, and to government officials; each representing the futility of a secretive bureaucracy. Ultimately, Hassan will use his skills as a computer hacker to try and crack this system.
Zahra also presents a meta-narrative in its use of Hassan as a fictionalized blogger who represents the events following Ahmadinejad’s reelection through his commentary on them. If it was technology that enabled the protests in the first place, then it is apropriate that technology be used to depict the events as well. Technology further serves the means needed for Hassan and Zahra to find out whether Medhi is alive or not.
Zahra’s Paradise is far from a handbook on foreign policy, but it does serve to act as a sort of mediator to the world to illustrate the humanity of the Iranian people. In fact, the greatest antagonist in the novel is arguably the Islamic Republic itself. In contrast, its protagonists are Iranian dissidents, protestors, and mourners. The book cover’s tagline summarizes the text in these words, “A missing son. A stolen election. Is this Iran?” Amir and Khalil tackle the question, “Is this Iran?” as a means of directing the reader to consider what Iran is, what it should be, and is it what it used to be.
Marjane Satrapi, in her preface to Persepolis, writes, “Since [the Islamic Revolution], this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth.” Here Satrapi and Amir and Khalil agree.
Among other moves towards censorship, the Iranian government has extended it’s firewall to include web-based email services such as Gmail, Hotmail, and other providers, effectually cutting off users from their email. No date of repeal, if any, has been announced. In the early events of the novel, the author notes that he cannot contact his brother because the government has blocked all use of cell-phones. Though the novel acts as historical fiction, the story isn’t over yet. Hassan and Zahra made be fictionalized, but they represent the archetypes of people still caught in the middle of a governments war to maintain control of its people. That war is far from over.
The phenomenon of the Arab Spring has been the use of social media and the Internet to connect protestors. In America, we have seen the Occupy Wall Street movement flex their political muscle in dissidence against a capitalist bourgeois. Time magazine has gone as far as to name “the protestor” as the 2011 Person of the Year. Zahra takes this idea and creates a meta-narrative with a fictionalized narrator who blogs the experience. Each chapter takes place on a day (ranging from June 16, 2009 to August 19, 2009) following the protests.
Zahra’s Paradise gradually becomes kind of a memorial. It is a figurative and literal memorial to what Iran was, for those who have been tortured and killed, and for those who have suffered under the hand of the Islamic Revolution. Those who speak out against the regime are punished for it. This book remembers them. The final several pages of the text represent the “citizens of a silent city named Omid.” They list names of persons, as the authors put it, “unfairly and arbitrarily deprived of his or her life.” This City of the Dead reinforces the metaphor carried through the text that the Islamic Republic has not only oppressed its people, but also tried to revise history by leaving little trace of its dead. If there is no record, then it never happened.