Zahra's Paradise: A Graphic Novel Explores Iran's Political Problems

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Even if you set aside the lethal intrigue that surrounds its nuclear program, Iran remains a mystery to most Westerners. A new book titled "Zahra's Paradise" offers readers a glimpse of life in the country. It's a graphic novel by an Iranian-American author. For security reasons, he goes only by his first name, Amir. The book is set in Tehran during the disputed 2009 elections and the protests that followed. It centers around a mother's quest to find her missing son. The author says the graphic novel's title is a reference to a specific place in Iran.

Amir: "Zahra's Paradise" is the name of the main cemetery. It's a vast, vast space outside Tehran, and since the revolution of 1979, it has really been the place where Iranians have been burying their loved ones. This was, you know, both people who were killed during the revolution, after the revolution, all the victims of the Iran-Iraq war ended there. So in a sense, it's the place where all Iranians come together and grieve together, and then you realize that in the religious context, you know, the cemetery is actually not just the place where you take the dead. It's actually the entrance into the heavens. Zahra is the name of the prophet's daughter. So there's this tremendous irony that this paradise has come to represent, really, the grief of an entire nation.

Werman: Your book began as a web comic and has been serialized online in black and white strips three times a week, beginning in early 2010. Why did you use that format?

Amir: What the internet allowed us to do was to communicate in real time which meant that as my partner, Khalil, was doing the drawing, we were putting them up, and what that meant was that all the traditional barriers to publishing, which were sort of barriers of space and time and language, were gone. We were actually interacting with our audience live and that was a whole other way of really publishing and presenting the ideas.

Werman: The fact that it's a comic and it's literally in black and white, were you worried that it would turn the story into almost a polemic, you know, with good guys and bad guys and maybe less nuance you'd find in a novel?

Amir: Not really. I think one of the things that we've done in Zahra's Paradise is to show the contradictions in people, to show the way in which people are forced, by circumstance and situation, into various political positions and then change those positions. So the black-and-whiteness of it actually allowed us to show it as a collage.

Werman: Who has seen this web comic around the globe, and do you have any sense of how many Iranians inside Iran have had access to it?

Amir: We could see through Google that we had readership in at least twenty different cities in Iran and we started getting feedback from people there. Around the world, Zahra's Paradise has I think been read in about something like eighty to ninety countries. So the web made it really much more of a global phenomenon than anything else.

Werman: Is it risky for Iranians to look at Zahra's Paradise in Iran on the internet?

Amir: You know, I don't think they're monitored at that level, but we started gettting notes from people inside Iran telling us to be careful. So I know that people were reading it there. I think, you know, they need to take precautions and things, but they were reading it.

Werman: Amir, let me ask you about two things in the book that I'm curious about. Some of the most riveting images are these public hangings that happen in Tehran using construction cranes. Now we see these images of bustling traffic in downtown Tehran and two men dangling from crane hooks. Why does the regime use cranes to hang people?

Amir: It's a great question. How is it that the crane, which is something that's supposedly for construction, become this instrument for hanging people? How did the crane become a symbol in a way like the hand of God that sort of yanks Iranians off the ground and hangs them? How did it become a symbol, really, or Iran and Islam. The crane, of course, is very, you know, it's kind of like having mobile executioners and the idea is to strike fear in the populous. It's to show how much more powerful the state is,a relative to the people.

Werman: Tell us what's on the last thirteen pages of the book. It's in the tiniest type imaginable. I had to put on my reading glasses and then use a magnifying glass. Visually, it packs quite a wallop.

Amir: That's the list of sixteen thousand, nine hundred and one Iranians who have been killed since the revolution of 1979. Either assassinated or executed or vanished and it just tells you of how deep the damage that the Islamic Republic is inflicting on the Iranian people, but it's also a way of telling people, "No. The struggle for Iran's future is a struggle for memory, it's a struggle for history, it's a struggle for truth, it's a struggle against lies."

Werman: Amir is the Iranian-American author of the graphic novel "Zahra's Paradise". He and illustrator, Khalil, use only their first name for security reasons. Amir, very good to speak with you and meet you. Thank you.

Amir: Thank you very much, Marco.

Werman: Check out a few chapters from the graphic novel at