from graphic novel guest blogger Francisca Goldsmith:
While the civil protests and military strong-arm tactics that comprised the event we call Tiananman Square were televised to the world and have been revisited regularly since by activists, politicians and historians from all nations, the brutal suppression of Iranian protesters 20 years later, in response to a seemingly hijacked election, remains obscure in the West. The development of cell phone networks and social media between the two events could have brought it to everyone’s eye and ear, let alone our living rooms, but the chill and misunderstandings between the barely admitted Christianity of the West and the Islamic politics that have become enmeshed in our (mis)understanding of Iran have allowed too many Americans to remain ignorant of what being in Iran, in June 2009, could have felt like.
Amir and Khalil’s graphic novel has the power to change that assumed ignorance, in part because it is such finely crafted fiction, and in part because the facts on which it relies are referenced and cited so completely in the multiple appendices to Zahra’s Paradise. It simply isn’t possible to read this story of one family’s soul crushing search for a lost protester without feeling the pains—and the momentary hopes and flarings of anger—felt by his mother, brother, and assorted friends and relatives. Subplots are carefully threaded through the major story arc, and allusions and symbols are brilliantly selected. The strongest of these latter include the kind of incessant use of brand names that one finds in Gossip Girls, but which here helps to point to how insidious the support of Iran’s demagogues by Western corporations is.
Yes, there are comic actors—the mother’s scotch-swilling sister, for instance—and a walk-on part at the end that brings hope. These are part of what make this a good work of literature rather than a screed bogged in message better delivered by means other than fiction. Among the appendices is the final, 10-page section of the book that is more than sufficient fact to chill the reader: all 16,901 names on the Omid Memorial at print time are listed. To look at the sea of tiny print on those pages is to truly see the enormity of a story too often ignored here, except for political purposes.
Adult/High School–Amir, an experienced Iranian American journalist, and Khalil, a graphic artist for whom this is a first novel, have produced a story so compelling and revealing that it serves to articulate what plain facts too often fail to communicate in terms of relationships, both familial and political. A family searches for a missing 19-year-old student in the wake of the June 2009 demonstrations against rigged elections in Iran. Hassan, his older brother, works unceasingly across the next weeks to unearth Mehdi’s fate. With a well-defined cast of characters, readers move from the Alevi home into the streets, bureaucracies, prisons, and the gardens of Tehran. The realistic black-and-white cartoons are filled with active expressions of faces and gestures. Crowd scenes seem to swell on these pages while scenes of torture communicate the process of alienation that accompanies dehumanizing penal methods. Scenes of adult love making, brutality, and grief are presented as fully appropriate to the story. Footnotes explain necessary use of Persian phrases without making the panels too complex, and a glossary explains terms at greater length. A series of appendixes explains how social media, an internationally acclaimed Brazilian author, and the Omid Memorial to lives lost since 1979 to foreign funded civil violence are true facts in this story, the title of which is the real name of Tehran’s large cemetery.–Francisca Goldsmith, Infopeople Project, CA