The Webcomic Overlook #163: Zahra’s Paradise
Iran is a terribly tricky country to talk about. On the one hand, we all know that it’s a potentially frightening country from a political standpoint. There’s concerns about government corruption and their nuclear capabilities. We know about the official stance of Antisemitism and the Green Revolution protests. That’s serious stuff.
On the other hand, a lot of news that comes out of that country is completely ridiculous. Not too long ago the Iranian government threatens to threats to boycott the 2012 London Olympics because they claim that the logo spells “Zion”. And remember Boobquake? Remember when Hojatoleslam Kazem Seddiqi claimed that immodestly dressed women were the cause of earthquakes? This somehow spurred the really silly “Boobquake,” a viral tongue-in-cheek internet movement set to discredit Seddiqi by proving that naked boobs do not cause earthquakes. (I’m a little frightened, by the way, to see if Seddiqi has been using the recent worldwide tragedies in Japan and New Zealand to somehow prove that Boobquake was, indeed, to blame.)
So Iran is both a known threat and a punchline. Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen … we can understand. Iran remains a country most people just can’t figure out.
Amir and Khalil attempt to convey the problems in Iran with Zahra’s Paradise. The comic deals with one man’s attempt to find clues as to the whereabouts of his missing brother, Medhi. The story and characters are fictional. Several real life events, however, make their way into Zahra’s Paradise to give the reader a full picture of the oppression that people in Iran face every day.
Who is Zahra? The name is mentioned several times in the comic. There are three sources. Zahra is the name of the mother looking for her missing boy. It is also a reference to Behesht-e Zahra, the largest grave in Iran, where several Iranian officials and deceased soldiers are buried. The third is a woman named Zahra Kazemi, whose story is told in the comic. She was an Iranian-Canadian photographer who, unluckily, was caught taking pictures outside one of the prisons. She was incarcerated and then raped, tortured, and beaten to death by Iranian officials in 2003. The name “Zahra” is used very often in the comic, and it can be sometimes confusing who the writers are referring to.
Medhi was only one of many young people who disappeared during the Green Revolution. When he doesn’t come home, his mother, Zahra, and his unnamed brother visit several sites to determine if he’s been jailed … or even if he’s alive. They meet several characters: from an opinionated taxi cab driver to a sympathetic rich woman. The voyage eventually becomes less about finding Medhi and more about stitching together a tapestry of Iranian society. Independent people with personalities and dreams, all dreaming of a better world.
Medhi, meanwhile, unintentionally becomes something of a spiritual entity… more idea than a person. We, the readers, never really see him. Our impressions our shaped from people has has come in contact with. Officials know of him. They become highly irritated when his name is mentioned. When a former cellmate confirms to Medhi’s brother that he has seen Medhi alive, he describes him as an enveloping presence of love and sanctuary.
Even the mere image of Medhi becomes an agent of change. Sepideh, a young independent-minded woman, takes a missing persons poster with her on a whim. She’s also involved in an affair with an Iranian official. When the official reacts angrily to the poster, Sepideh knows that Medhi’s image has made her life dangerous, but has also provided her leverage over the political establishment. “It’s as if Medhi was holding me back,” she says when she explains why she palmed some dangerous evidence to Medhi’s whereabouts.
There are times I thought Zahra’s Paradise stretched the story a little too thin. There where times I felt that the same points were brought up one too many times. Other times, I thought the act of informing the reader undermined the story, which felt underdeveloped. As I mentioned earlier, Amir and Khalil go on tangents often to include as many real life accounts as they could. Some of the segues, though, feel awkwardly shoehorned in.
For example, there’s a point in the story where a former prisoner talks about how he was raped by the guards. The rapists start haranguing their victim with blatantly political taunts like “Looks like he’s unhappy with his vote” and “Ali will have to stop hiding in the ballot box!” Maybe that’s based on something that really happened … but, to me, it veered too close to the territory of cheesy editorial cartoons, where everything is labeled in bold letters. Yes, yes, the rape symbolizes the election. I get it.
The less obvious criticisms and insights turned out to be more valuable. We get to see how oppression work, and how it seems more familiar to readers in a Western society than we at first realize. When we think of dictatorships, we imagine antiseptically uniformed, impeccably groomed, faceless officers herding cowed, brainwashed civilians. Perhaps looking something like how the Gestapo of Nazi Germany are portrayed in movies and propaganda films.
Zahra’s Paradise, though, shows that the real faces of a dictatorship are government officials who look less groomed and more disorganized. They’re fat, sloppy, and hairy. One man sneers arrogantly at people who dare tell him how to do his job, yet he spends a good portion of his day digging under his toenails. You can imagine that if it weren’t for his ties to the government, he’d probably be an auto mechanic or the guy behind the counter of a bait shop. The officers at the prisons don’t look any neater. They’re fat, boorish, and blustery.
The subtext is clear: Iran is controlled by unqualified middle-aged bullies. It one where no one in power cares for you, and where bureaucracy is oppressive. We may not live in a situation so severe … but it’s also not a scenario so alien that we cannot relate.
Women play a large role in Zahra’s Paradise. They are depicted as cunning, daring, and headstrong. A man can easily loose his swagger once a stern old woman informs him that she’s close friends with his superiors. A beautiful young woman can draw secrets from a man by placing him in a compromising situation that can ruin him socially and professionally. So, while women in Iran must live with the specter of the depredations suffered by Zahra Kazemi, they are by no means powerless.
Amir and Khalil do not sidestep how ridiculous Iranian politics sometimes appear. They see the politicians as overeager, competitive children trying to please the father figure of the Ayatollah. Yet there are moments that are sober and upsetting, like when two homosexual men are lynched and hanged from cranes.
The artist effortlessly employs several stylistic devices. It uses both the old-school cartooniness that you might find Mad Magazine and a simple, elegant quality you’d find in classical Persian illustrations. The world of Zahra’s Paradise is both one that tangible and easy to relate to and also one that’s steeped in a culture that’s curiously strange to readers seeing the world for the first time. We all know what a traffic jam feels like, but we may not know what one feels like in Iran. It only takes one panel for Zahra’s Paradise to let you know what one looks, sounds, and even smells like.
Other illustrations are steeped in symbolism. It’s lyrical. The writers seem to have been influenced by Omar Khayyam, the infamous Iranian poet mentioned several times in the comic. One of the earliest stories in Zahra’s Paradise deals with a man beating then drowning a bag full of innocent puppies. There’s probably a direct interpretation to the events depicted in the comic, like the suffering of innocent civilians in Iranian jails. I thought that the scene most importantly established a sense of sickening wrongness … one that lingers throughout the comic without any direct reference. Later on, an elaborate panel shows a nightmarish factory with the Ayatollah spitting out robotic citizens. It looks like something straight out of a nightmarish expressionist film, and it negatively contrasts against earlier panels that lovingly depict the details of Iranian architecture.
A beautiful culture corrupted by the perfidy of politicians.
When I first heard about Zahra’s Paradise, I’d though it was going to be about how new technology shapes modern revolutions. Medhi’s brother is a blogger. Politicians view cellphone cameras and social networking with suspicion. Yet there is a dark side. We all know how it turned out. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retained power. Nothing seems to have changed.
Most frightening is that the Iranian government seems to be computer savvy themselves. They know how to use technology to further suppression. While it may be true that “the world witnessed what could no longer be kept from view, through YouTube videos, on Twitter and in blogs”, it also means that webcomics cannot be hidden either. Amir and Khalil, after all, choose to remain anonymous for political reasons. Web 2.0 can be liberating, but it’s fair game for both sides. It’s a path fraught with dangers.
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)