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Time magazine named its person of the year—not this year, but the year that just ended last week—“The Protestor.”
2011 was the year of the Arab Spring, in which protestors took to the streets throughout the Middle East—often peacefully, sometimes not—and toppled regimes, threatened others, provoked responses that may ultimately lead to the downfall of regimes this year or in the next few. In the United States, the Occupy movement quickly grew from something the American media tried to ignore for a week or two into something no one could ignore, becoming part of the national conversation, revealing some of the savage urges of repression among our own police forces and outing Frank Miller as cranky old nutcase.
If The Protestor is the person of the year, then Zahra’s Paradise might just be the graphic novel of the year.
I don’t necessarily mean in simple terms of quality, although it is an excellent, compelling, make-you-set-the-book-down-and-think-in-stunned-silence work, and it probably is one of the better comics to see release in the last calendar year.
I’m referring instead to its timeliness, and the way it grapples with, explores and ultimately finds a qualified defeat—the “good guys” technically lose this one, while spotting a route to victory in the future—with some of the most pressing issues of the day, the very things that world leaders, would-be world leaders and the media talk about almost daily.
Zahra’s Paradise is a comic book about the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and protests spurred by economic and social justice concerns world wide, because its about repressive, unrepresentative government and the clash between rulers and the ruled. Even though the Middle Eastern country it’s set in isn’t an Arab one, and the real-world protests that sets its fictionalized narrative in motion were two springs before the Arab Spring.
The country is Iran, and the protests were those that followed the June, 2009 presidential election, in which incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won reelection, despite widespread concerns about the legitimacy of the election, within and without Iran.
The story begins after a huge protest, when a young man named Mehdi fails to return home to his worried mother and brother, a blogger who serves as the protagonist (Although its their mother’s search that truly drives the story).
Worrying that he was detained during the crackdown, the pair begin searching for him through winding labyrinth of the Iran’s justice system and extra-judicial, gray system, ultimately visiting hospitals, jails, morgues, graveyards and various government bureaucracies.
The search leads readers into a modern-day Iran, a place unfamiliar to most people who haven’t visited, and have only caught glimpses in Western news stories, and introduces a variety of characters with a variety of viewpoints on the government, the state of the country and the lives they live in it. These run the gamut to unhappy folks trying to get by to online activists to cogs in the evil machine of the regime (Tellingly, even one of the bad guys, whose job involves torturing people and covering up deaths, seems highly conflicted).
The issues are big ones, but the story focuses narrowly on the mother’s grief, and her search for a single son, allowing readers to relate to and sympathize with this person and her personal quest, so that by the dynamite climax—in which the mother is given a fiery, eight-page rant—and the personal tragedy is multiplied by a factor of thousands, it makes for a devastating gut-punch (The book begins, I should note, with an emotional punch in the face, as the creators use a scene in which a man disposes of an uwanted litter of puppies as a metaphor for what the Iranian regime will do to their own children).
I can’t tell you exactly who those creators are, as they are semi-anonymous for political reasons. The writer is Amir, an Iranian-American activist, journalist and filmmaker, and the artist Khalil is a cartoonist and fine artist, creating his first graphic novel.
It’s a hell of a debut. No matter how well aligned with the zeitgeist the work is, no matter how compelling the story, Zahra’s Paradise wouldn’t work if it weren’t also a great work of comics, and it most assuredly is.
Khalil’s character designs all have the slight exaggeration of the characters that populate modern political cartoons—an effect no doubt further suggested by the black-and-white, newspaper-like presentation of the art—but the panels are all rich in detail, from the heavily emotive faces to the characters in the foreground, to the many nameless people in background crowds, to the architecture.
He provides not only characters, but a sense of place, with many distinct settings, something quite welcome in a story set so far away, in a place even more alien to most of us than Metropolis or Madripoor.
And clever ways are always found to illustrate that which doesn’t exactly suggest itself as good comics material. For example, when our blogger protagonist gets access to a file he shouldn’t, and learns about those who disappeared into the extra-legal system, we see a few little framing panels of him at a computer screen around a massive two-page spread, in which two massive, mechanical cleric’s heads are shown as part of a big, sinister factory, with conveyor belts full of dozens of people going in and out of their mouths, cutaway views six floors behind them in which figures are tortured or imprisoned or executed.
The story isn’t a true one, necessarily. At least, not every character in this is really real, but the story itself is common—way too common based by one of the appendixes in the back, in which the names of 16,901 people executed, shot while demonstrating or assassinated since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established. That sound like a big number, but it looks like an even bigger one, as you scan 11 pages full of the tiniest still-legible type you can imagine.
It would be some comfort as an American to finish a book like this and think, “Well, that can never happen here,” but then, 2011 was the year we saw peaceful protesters getting billy-clubbed, pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed and, in a few particularly tragic cases, getting struck in the head by tear-gas canisters. It was the year that the president who got elected promising to close down Guantanamo Bay, a former constitutional scholar, again failed to do so. It even ended with that same president signing a bill that allows for the indefinite detention without trial of any terror suspect, even American citizens.
So, you know, things may seem a lot better in the U.S. at the moment, but they are a hell of a lot worse than they were a decade or so ago.
Here’s hoping that as vital and relevant a work of fiction as Zahra’s Paradise might have been in 2011, it soon becomes a work of historical fiction.