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Zahra's Paradise by Amir & Khalil

 

Zahra's Paradise has been serialized on the web since February 10, 2010. The book will be available in mid-September.  This is a powerful, moving book that is a fantastic, gripping read. It is also an important book and deserves wide attention.

This story is set in the aftermath of Iran’s fraudulent elections of 2009 and captures with great detail, emotion and authenticity a place, a time and a people.  The story is ultimately about Mehdi, a young man who joined the protests, and then disappears into the bureaucratic maw of the Islamic Republic. The plot revolves around his mother and his brother who are determined to find Mehdi and learn his fate.  The brother is also a blogger -- a character that captures the confluence of culture and technology, closure and openness that marked the youth-inspired protests in Iran.

This story, and certainly the book, will be compared to Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's memoir of life during the time of the Islamic revolution in Iran.  To talk about this book in the same context as Satrapi's masterful work is completely appropriate.  Zahra's Paradise works on multiple levels, a chilling indictment of an arbitrary, bureaucratic regime, a sweeping and revealing snapshot of a relatively closed culture, and an emotional personal story of a mother's search for her child. Although a fictional tale, it rings with authenticity.  

The title refers to Zahra, a name mentioned several times in the comic.  Zahra is the name of the mother looking for Mehdi. Behesht-e Zahra is the largest cemetary in Iran and is a crucial setting to the story.  It also references Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photographer who was tortured and killed by Iranian officials in 2003.  What does "Zahra's Paradise" mean? I think it's clear Amir wants to create some ambiguity around the title, as much as there is no clear "answer" to how he sees Iran.  The cemetary is the final resting ground for many inhabitants of Iran -- calling it a "paradise" is at times a respectful nod to the Islamic belief in the afterlife, but at other times is perhaps a sarcastic commentary on life In Iran.  The references back to the tragic story of Zahra Kazemi and the flashbacks to the Islamic revolution of the seventies ground the dissent of the protests in 2009 in something longer and larger -- a society chafing under the rule of petty, selfish and at times, lawless bureaucrats.

Its two creators, Amir & Khalil, remain anonymous "for obvious political reasons." The author Amir is an Iranian-American human rights activist, journalist and documentary filmmaker. He has lived and worked in the United States, Canada, Europe and Afghanistan. Amir recounts that “I was twelve when the revolution took place and my family had to go into exile.” He now lives in the United States, and got his ideas from the Iran he is familiar with and news from the country, including firsthand accounts, and videos on the Internet. In an interview from 2010, he states:

The inspirations for the story are many. There’s context and culture. I’m deeply touched by the dreams of Iranian youth, by the nobility of Iranian women, the courage of the Iranian people.... In terms of immediate inspiration, there’s no way I was going to let the dreams of another generation of Iranian youth get shattered in the streets of Tehran. And there was no way I was going to let their memory get wiped out. That meant reconstructing their story—capturing and reflecting their image in some kind of mirror that could store and release their energy, their light. To me, Neda, Sohrab, Mohsen and others are only dead if we think of them and treat them as dead. But, if we don’t, if we tap into their life force, and raise its power by connecting their story back to the world, there’s no telling what their story can do.

This may be the most emotional, involving comic I've read this year.  I've read along with the webcomic but sitting down with the book and reading the story from start to finish was immersive and cathartic.  First Second Publishing has done a great job packing the webcomic into a hard cover book.  The book adds an extended glossary of terms and people, and an afterword that covers multiple topics from Iran's elections to the Arab Spring of 2011 to the story of Neda Agha Soltan. It's a great comic whether you read the webcomic or get the book.  

 

The publisher provided a copy to ComixTALK for review purposes.