Zahra’s Paradise

by on Dec.05, 2011, under Comics


I think I had tried and exhausted everything else. I had tried protests, I had tried petitions, I had tried academia, I had tried every possible language and way—and I was so frustrated. … Finding some way to express emotion, love and rage and contradiction and horror and anger and devotion in a medium that would be fast. … I have made documentary films, and with documentary films you have to lug a camera… The characters have to be present. You have to pay for the film and the light and the sound and everything has to be perfect… [W]ith the graphic novel … all you really need is your imagination and a pencil.

This is from a KPFA-Pacifica radio interview with Amir, the pseudonymous writer of Zahra’s Paradise, which lived as a comic serialized online for nearly two years until it was collected into a print form by First Second Books this month. (In its original, online incarnation readers helped with translation, making it available in thirteen languages so far.)

The book follows on the heels of Oil & Water as part of a new strain in comic books, graphic journalism, whatever you choose to call it. Political cartoons may be the oldest form of comics, but it’s only in the last decade that long-form graphic storytelling has looped back around and become overtly political once more.

Of course Zahra’s Paradise isn’t journalism. Amir is an exile, so direct documentary agitprop wasn’t possible for him. As he told KPFA:

We would get snippets of: oh, the grieving mothers are in the park. Oh, there are people outside Evin prison. Oh, the judiciary just lied about the rapes in the prison. So it was about putting the fragments together … and coming up with a composite character.

Nevertheless, his composite fictional story aims for as much concrete, verifiable truth as possible. The collected edition of Zahra’s Paradise concludes with nearly 30 pages of straight prose notes and documentation, followed by a complete printing of the Omid Memorial, an ongoing list of all the people killed by the Iranian government since the 1979 revolution—16,901 names in tiny print, page after page.

In that sense Zahra’s Paradise is like The Battle of Algiers, another explicitly political fictional work that ends with scenes from real history. But of course The Battle of Algiers ends with a victory, while Zahra’s Paradise ends with loss.

If I’ve held back on describing the narrative, it’s because it’s deceptively simple. It begins on June 16, 2009, the day after one of the earliest and largest election protests in Freedom Square. Mehdi, a nineteen-year-old university student, was at that protest and hasn’t come home. His mother Zahra and his brother, the unnamed narrator, are worried about him and try to find out what’s happened.

That’s it, but that basic motivation allows Amir and his artist collaborator Khalil (another pseudonym) to create a full portrait of the horror of daily life in Tehran during the repression that followed the protests. Zahra goes to the hospital, where she sees Revolutionary Guards dragging injured kids from their beds to be arrested. She goes to the notorious Evin prison, where they won’t tell her anything. She visits the morgue and sees the bodies of young people beaten to death, and drives home under the shadow of a pair of gay men hanged from cranes. She gets a bureaucratic runaround at the Hall of Justice. A copy-shop owner who does nothing more than print a “missing” flying for her is beaten by Basij thugs, his shop smashed. She meets a young man who says he shared a cell with Mehdi in Evin; he’s traumatized from being raped by the guards.

Finally, through an intrigue involving a prison official’s mistress, the brother manages to hack Evin’s records. He confirms that Mehdi is dead and buried in a secret grave in Zahra’s Paradise, the biggest cemetary in Tehran, along with dozens of others like him. The family manages to get his body released, and at his funeral Zahra pours forth a four-page poetic lament, during which Khalil’s art, typically restrained, becomes as florid as the prose, ending with a full-page vision of Iran on fire.

It’s a blistering, passionate conclusion, I think far beyond where a writer coming from an exclusively Western tradition would have felt comfortable going. But it represents a real movement of highly demonstrative, publicly mourning mothers from the weeks after the government’s violent backlash. See, for example, this widely circulated video of Neda’s mother at her funeral.

Alyssa Rosenberg recently argued that more politically aware art is often better art. Yet as a middlebrow art form comics/graphic novels have tended to stick to the personal. I’m glad to see more and more forays into the explicitly political—into more active engagement with the world—and Zahra’s Paradise is an inspiring place to start.

Read sample chapters here and here.

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