Iranian Internet Comic Strip Series "Zahra's Paradise"

The Pencil as a Weapon against Dictatorship

Internet media have been involved in organising the mass protests in Iran following the controversial presidential elections in June 2009, and disseminating information and footage throughout the world. The web comic strip "Zahra's Paradise" is also a child of this media revolution. Susanne Schanda spoke to its creator

​​ "They can ban as many newspapers as they want, but the people's press won't be subdued." These are the words, spoken in a comic strip, of the owner of an Internet café who is at that moment producing a thousand copies on his photocopier of a flyer with details of a missing person. That missing person's name is Mehdi, he's 19 years old and took part in the large-scale demonstration on Freedom Square in June 2009, four days after the presidential elections, when more than a million people thronged the streets of Tehran, calling out: "Where is my voice?" Since then he has fallen silent, and disappeared.

His mother and his brother, a blogger, go in search of Mehdi. The first place they go to is Freedom Square, the scene of violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators the previous day. Then they trail from hospital to hospital, see a great deal of blood and badly injured people. But there's no trace of Mehdi anywhere, not even at the notorious Evin prison for political detainees. It's after dark, and the tall buildings of Tehran are bathed in artificial light. There are numerous men and women standing on the rooftops, their arms stretched up towards the sky, defiantly calling out the words "Allahu Akbar".

The Islamic Republic – a failed experiment

"Religion was always very important to the Iranians," says Amir, the author of "Zahra's Paradise", during a telephone interview. An Iranian national now living in the US, he had just turned 12 when he and his family left the country during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. "My experience of religion in Iran was marked by a loving grandmother, and it was of course a part of our culture. But Islam as it is being indoctrinated in Iran today, is tainted and corrupt. I view the 30-year-old Islamic Republic as an experiment just as Marxism was, and the experiment has failed," he says firmly.

​​ Amir, who only wants to use his first name, is a journalist, documentary filmmaker and human rights activist. He has lived in Afghanistan, Europe and Canada. He has always remained in touch with his old homeland, via blogs and websites administered by the reform movement, as well as through conversations with friends and relatives. "I belong to a generation of Iranians that has grown up between the cultures," says the author.

Since February, "Zahra's Paradise" has been appearing every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in 10 languages on the Internet. There are plans to publish the comic in book form next year. It is Amir's first comic strip volume. He has already completed the rough draft, but is also always working in parallel on the individual pages of the comic series with the Arab illustrator Khalil (who will also only divulge his first name).

Persian-Arab-Jewish cooperation

The comic strip novel is to be published by the Jewish-American comic strip author and publisher Mark Siegel in New York. This Persian-Arab-Jewish cooperation is a statement per se against the conventional formula of hostility in the name of religion. "I'd been pondering the idea of an Iran comic with Khalil for a long while already, and I'd also spoken to Mark Siegel about it," says Amir. Then came the elections and the wave of protests, the images charged with energy and hope for change. Then we knew instantly that we couldn't let this story pass us by."

Amir's work as a journalist often involves fragments of reality, he says. The comic strip allowed him to develop a story that feeds off reality, but with parts that go together to make up a whole, says Amir: "A sort of collage." The title is a reference to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran, where numerous victims of state violence are buried; among them the student Neda, who has become a symbol of the resistance movement.

For Amir, Behesht-e Zahra is not just a cemetery "but also a garden where the world will be reborn." He is convinced: "The dead are only dead if we forget them. If we think about them, on the other hand, we sense the power and energy they emanate."

Women with civil courage

The heroes of these web comic strips are actually heroines. Zahra, the mother, searches for her son for hours through the streets of Tehran at night, and is not afraid to challenge a high-ranking official outside Evin prison; Zahra's friend Miriam, who likes to smoke and drink, has no time for prohibitions, religious or otherwise. When Zahra tells her that when Mehdi was born, it felt to her like a gift from God, Miriam responds sarcastically: "Well, God also gave us Khomeini. Now I really need another Scotch."

​​ A representative of the civil courage of Iranian women in everyday life is the young, coquettish woman in the Internet café, who flirts with her neighbour and puts the nosy, interfering owner in his place with the comment: "I'm paying for Internet time here. If I need a censor, I'll pay extra; what do you charge?" The comic strip devotes an entire page to the student Neda, whose death was filmed by a mobile phone and the footage aired across the globe via Twitter. A tribute is also made to Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian photo journalist tortured to death in prison in 2003.

Role model Marjane Satrapi

With "Zahra's Paradise", Amir and Khalil are following in the footsteps of the Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi, who lives in Paris. In her comic strip novel "Persepolis" from the year 2000, which has since been made into a film, she created an artistic documentation of the Islamic Revolution by drawing on her own biography. Amir is a great admirer of Satrapi's work, and regards her as a role model and source of inspiration.

"She can be credited with creating a comic strip that showed Iranians working on change behind the official façade of the Islamic Republic, committed, intelligent people who are never talked about in the West," he says.

But while Satrapi made her own life story central to the narrative, "Zahra's Paradise" relates fictional events against the backdrop of recent political occurrences that have not even been brought to any conclusions yet – and almost in real time. As a journalist Amir knows how quickly political events fall out of the media spotlight. "Our comic strip aims to help ensure that people remain aware of the most recent events affecting the lives of Iranians."

Susanne Schanda

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

Qantara.de

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Website "Zahra's Paradise"

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