Over the past few years, Amir, an Iranian human rights activist and documentary filmmaker living in the United States, struggled to tell anyone who would listen why three million people put their lives on the line by taking to the streets of Tehran on June 15, 2009, chanting, “Where is my vote?”
The march took place in response to the disputed presidential election, which officially handed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office.
“I wanted to tell the people’s story,” says Amir, who goes by his first name to protect himself and his family. “In the United States, the debate about Iran is largely dominated by the nuclear question, but this is about so much more than that. It’s about human rights. The Islamic Republic has killed more Iranians than anybody else and that gets completely lost in the conversation. I had to tell that story.”
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The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran documents abuses we rarely hear about in the United States, including the oppression, death, and torture of artists, filmmakers, activists, and journalists.
According to the Campaign’s Distortion & Disinformation report, “Two years after the disputed presidential election of 2009, the human rights situation in Iran continues to deteriorate. The country has become enveloped in a profound human rights crisis marked by systematic violations of both international law and the rights protected by Iran’s own constitution. The government has been engaged in a binge of executions, routine torture, and mass arbitrary detentions. Journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists, as well as, minority ethnic and religious groups face growing repression. Authorities, moreover, repeatedly silence domestic efforts to hold the government accountable.”
Amir says he couldn’t make a documentary about the realities on the ground in Iran because he would be arrested and most likely tortured if he returned to his homeland, so he collaborated with Khalil, a fine artist, to tell the story of today’s Iran in a graphic novel called Zahra’s Paradise.
Dedicated to the missing, the absent, and the fallen, Zahra’s Paradise focuses on Mehdi, a young man who disappeared after taking part in a demonstration. His mother Zahra and his brother Hassan search for him by embarking on a long and painful journey into the Orwellian underworld of the Iranian theocratic regime.
“The graphic novel allowed us to focus very tightly on the story of a single Iranian, but in the back of the book, we were able to list the names of 16,901 people who've been killed by the Islamic republic, so it's not just a graphic novel for me; it's a political device,” says Amir. “It's a subversive political art form.”
That section of the book is called Omid. “The men and women named on these next pages are now all citizens of a silent city named Omid (“hope” in Persian). There, victims of persecution have found a common life whose substance is memory. Visit Omid, meet its citizens, and, by doing so, bring them back in memory. Let them challenge our conscience so that in the future we will prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.”
In addition to focusing on human rights abuses and those who’ve been killed, Amir and Khalil also made a point to tell the story of today’s Iran through ordinary Iranians. “The taxi driver. The Xerox shop owner. They are Iran, not Ahmadinejad. Not the guys who distort its image,” says Amir. “Art can reclaim our humanity and our own common sense and dignity.”
Zahra’s Paradise has been translated into 12 languages and is wildly popular in Germany and Spain.
Paul Buhle, editor of several graphic novels, including A People’s History of Empire, A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman, and the newly published Robin Hood: People’s Outlaw and Forest Hero, says Zahra’s Paradise enriches the diversity and fullness of what graphic novels can accomplish. “It also speaks to the ability of graphic novels to explore the crises of the current day and puts them in a historical context, which is greatly lacking.”
Buhle adds that the graphic novel genre is proliferating and bringing fresh talent like Amir and Khalil on to the scene.
Another graphic artist to watch is Dan Archer, whose latest Arch Comix experiment, Voices from Occupy Oakland, is based on interviews he conducted and includes several multimedia elements.
Filmmaker Matt Pizzolo is planning to publish a graphic novel anthology about the Occupy movement. He recently told Comics Alliance that Occupy Comics: Art & Stories Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, is intended to be “a time capsule of the passions and emotions driving the movement” and “tell the stories of the people who are out there putting themselves at risk for an idea.”
Pizzolo raised over $28,000 on Kickstarter— well beyond his $10,000 goal — to publish a hardcover book next year, and pay contributors, including Shannon Wheeler, Eric Drooker, and David Lloyd, designer of the iconic Guy Fawkes mask.
“It’s a great moment for art, as well as social movements,” says Buhle.
Click below to listen to a Your Call conversation about the explosion and success of graphic novels:
How do images change the art of story telling?
Amir, a journalist, human rights activist, and co-author of Zahra’s Paradise
Paul Buhle, founder of the Oral History of the American Left archive at New York University, and editor of several graphic novels, including A People’s History of Empire, A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman, and the forthcoming Robin Hood: People’s Outlaw and Forest Hero.