Review: Zahra’s Paradise

Zahra's ParadiseA full year and a half before a popular uprising in Tunisia jolted the Arab world, a dramatic and still unfinished prelude was playing out in Iran’s Green Revolution. The enormous demonstrations against the apparently fraudulent reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – and the vicious crackdown subsequently unleashed by the country’s Supreme Leader – definitively severed, in the eyes of the world, the aspirations of Iran’s people from those of the thugs-cum-theocrats who had, until then, monopolized the country’s representation on the world stage.

Regrettably, the Western narrative of this momentous occasion has too often served the political agendas of Iran’s enemies in the West, who have been more concerned with regime change and the projection of U.S. power than with the fate of ordinary Iranians. Worse still, the memory of this moment has largely subsided outside of Iran, overshadowed by ongoing revolutions in the Arab world and worsening tensions between Iran’s government and the West.

Amir and Khalil, respectively the Iranian-born author and Algerian-born artist of the graphic novel Zahra’s Paradise, have accordingly focused their treatment of Iran’s Green Revolution on the individuals who were touched by it and on the country that gave birth to it.”What mattered to us when we started this project,” they write in the book’s afterword, “and what matters to us now, is witnessing the plight and reversing the tragedy that has befallen the Iranian people. The tragedy is personal. Its details and dimensions are unfathomable. It is also legal, political, religious, and cultural.”

The book’s plot follows the compelling personal story of Zahra, an Iranian mother, and her older son Hassan as they desperately search for any sign of Mehdi, Zahra’s younger son who disappeared in the early days of the regime’s crackdown on demonstrators. They tread helplessly from street to police station, hospital to morgue, and prison to cemetery, spurned at every step by unhelpful or dissembling bureaucrats, abetted by friends and sympathetic strangers, and dogged by menacing regime thugs. The story is fictional but wholly recognizable, emblematic of grieving mothers who to this day continue to badger the regime about their disappeared children.

Zahra’s Paradise would almost suffice as a compelling work of illustrated fiction alone. The reader skips eagerly across the pages to discover the fate of the characters and their desperate search, returning only later to appreciate the sometimes stunning imagery. Full-page illustrations of the demonstrations in Tehran, for example, pitted against a depiction of Iran’s justice system – a conveyer belt of prisoners fed into the maw of a giant mechanical mullah and shipped off to various undesirable fates – vividly illuminate the scope of both the ambitions of the revolution and the machinery arrayed against it.

But the book is of course no simple yarn; it is also a history. In manners both subtle and brutishly didactic, the book’s characters offer an uncommon narrative education about Iran. It is certainly replete with irreverent and indignant broadsides against the regime’s cruelty, hypocrisy, and ineptitude. But more interestingly, it is liberally sprinkled with evidence of Iran’s often overlooked diversity of peoples, faiths, and attitudes. Zahra, for example, an apparently temperate and devout Persian Muslim, counts as her best friend a woman named Miriam, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking Armenian Christian whom Zahra’s children call “Auntie.”

Also coursing through the pages of Zahra’s Paradise is a palpable love for the mystical Persian poets of old, whose intoxicating odes to love, both human and divine, seem utterly alien to Iran’s ostensibly Islamic government today. “Can these [regime] philosophers,” wonders one character, “match even one single verse by Hafez? Can they produce love, friendship?”

“Plant the tree of friendship,” quotes Hassan in response, “for it bears boundless joy. Uproot the tree of enmity, for it summons countless sorrows.”

Buried within such tributes to the Persian poets, to say nothing of the book’s evident sympathy for Iran’s modern revolutionaries, may be the suggestion that the guideposts of a would-be Iranian democracy are planted firmly within the country’s own history, not in the grandstanding from governments abroad. Indeed, to the extent that the book addresses foreign interventions at all, it recalls the Western-engineered ouster of the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, as well as the continuing role of Western technology companies in facilitating the regime’s program of repression. Surely no such further “assistance” is required.

But in the character of Mehdi, a devotee of Iranian rap, Bob Marley, and the French-Algerian soccer giant Zinedine Zidane, one glimpses the vision of a youthful Iran that is as outward-looking as it is self-determined. In his disappearance, Mehdi encapsulates the regime’s cannibalism of Iran’s best and brightest.

Zahra’s Paradise is the latest in a slew of projects that have successfully filtered politics and history through the medium of the graphic novel – although the book’s series of epilogues about the story’s symbolism, the Green Revolution, public executions, and the victims of the regime, among other things, suggests that a more strictly prosaic work may be in the offing. As it is, Zahra’s Paradise skillfully employs the story of one family to elucidate a tenuous historical moment, fleshing it out in the richest of both human and political terms: history as an act of love and art.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Peter Certo is an editorial assistant with the Institute for Policy Studies.