Graphic Novel About Iran's Post-Election Crackdown Catapults to New York Times Bestsellers List

October 11, 2011

The brutal crackdown against Iran’s peaceful post-2009 presidential election protests has been the fodder for grim reports, statements and actions put out by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations.

It’s also the backdrop for Zahra’s Paradise, a new graphic novel by writer Amir and artist Khalil (they use only their first names).

Although it might be difficult to imagine that the ugly violence could be turned into a ‘comic strip’, the graphic novel turns out to be an ideal vehicle—perhaps even the only possible vehicle—to convey the extent of the horror that affected and continues to affect millions of Iranians.

The book, which since its debut just weeks ago has made it to the New York Times bestsellers list, is notable for both its beautiful artwork and moving prose and has the potential to educate a wide audience about the tragic events in Iran just two summers ago.

The story follows the efforts of a fictional mother Zahra, aided by her blogger son Hassan, to look for her other, nineteen-year-old, son Mehdi who disappeared after participating in a post-election protest in Tehran’s Azadi (freedom) Square. The pair search high and low, visit hospitals, a Revolutionary Court and the morgue, camp outside Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison and listen to chilling tales told by survivors of the violence.

Along the way they encounter the indifference and contempt of Iranian officials who view “trouble-makers” like Mehdi as little more than dust blown away by the wind.  But they also encounter ordinary Iranians who, through their small acts of kindness and larger acts of courage, help to lead the pair to the truth about what happened to their beloved Mehdi.

Some of the scenes are disturbing, others poignant; throughout the ordeal, Zahra keeps a glass of cold water waiting for Mehdi in his room, as she had done every day before he vanished. Others still use humor to express the surreal haze in which trauma is often experienced as well as the banality of the people and institutions that allowed such outrages to occur. In one droll passage, Hassan dozes off while waiting for hours along with dozens of other anxious people looking for their lost relatives at a Revolutionary Court. While a bored and surly clerk idly gives himself a pedicure, Hassan dreams that he has entered an M.C. Escher lithograph with staircases leading to nowhere and doorways opening onto nothing.

Monuments to the dead and ceremonies around death form an important part of Iran’s traditional Shi’a culture. Zahra’s Paradise (Behesht–e Zahra in Persian) is the name of a large and famous cemetery in Tehran.  It is the final resting place of not only Imam Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and of young soldiers—honored as martyrs—killed in the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, but of Neda Agha-Soltan—the young woman whose fatal shooting on the streets of Tehran shocked the world—as well as countless other victims of state violence.

The book named after the famous cemetery is a reminder that the courage and resilience of the living, by acts of resistance through art and activism, will always triumph over those who in the words of Zahra’s Paradise, would consign human beings to just “another scorched riverbed.”