Illustrated by Khalil
June 16, 2009: Iran rocks under a large protest that claims the presidency was stolen. The results are predictable, if tragic. People are killed, people are wounded, and people are taken away, never to be seen again. It's a sad story we've all heard before, but too many times, the people involved become nameless. They're statistics, not human beings, to be used as a human rights cudgel against a regime whose major difference from other brutal countries is their lack of cooperation with major Western corporations and a basis in the wrong religion.
Amir and Khalil force the reader to come to terms with abstract ideas by placing a name and a face one one such victim, the fictional Mehdi. Out to show his displeasure with his government, Mehdi is spirited away, and despite the best efforts of his mother and brother and their allies, appears to have disappeared without a trace. Join them in their struggle against a country that distrusts its people and will do anything to protect those in power. Can they at least bring him to the relative safety of a named grave in Zahra's Paradise?
Like other works in all sorts of mediums that cover difficult subjects, this book is hard to read. Whether it's watching the holocaust unfold on the movie screen or reading of the horrors of the South America dictators or now the visual depictions of torture of Zahra's Paradise, when you decide to portray human beings doing terrible things, it is quite the challenge to pull it off in a way that's respectable, frank, and leaves the reader thinking about the subject.
Zahra's Paradise manages all that quite well, as Amir and Khalil take us step by step through the madness of the current Iranian system that clings to revolution but refuses to allow its own people to do anything other than live in constant fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or angering the wrong people. Sure, there are those who work against the system, but they live on borrowed time and are subject to death and torture. Our protagonists probably only make it through the book alive through the good graces of being fictional. In the hands of these authors, Iran is a shadow of what it could be, waiting for the day when the people can take real control from the powers that be. Unfortunately, it looks like that day is far off indeed.
There are a lot of coincidences and twists and turns in Zahra's Paradise in order to ensure that the authors are able to cover every part of the deception and lies that cover Iran's politics. Mehdi's brother and mother meet up with everyone from cab drivers to bureaucrats to those who fell from grace when the Shah was overthrown. A torturer's lover is the key to unraveling the mystery in the most unlikely part of the narrative. We need everything to work perfectly, so that we can see not only how the system works, but there's also a counter-system, just waiting for their chance.
In another context, I might find that things work out too neatly, but here, I see the necessity. Do it otherwise and the story becomes one where all of Iran is the boogeyman that religious bigots in the United States and other countries try to paint it. Without getting to find out the inner workings of Iran's hidden system of death, the reader ends up with yet another conspiracy story, with no depth. Amir and Khalil may have overplayed their narrative hand a bit, but that's okay. We're here to think about the political implications of the story, not whether or not it meets Creative Writing 101.
I really like how each episode in this story gets its own chapter. I needed the breaks between to catch my breath between the terrible things I was reading. It let me feel our blogger-narrator's pain more fully, because I was able to absorb it before moving on. I also appreciated that all of the characters, even those we meet briefly, feel extremely real to me. They might be there to advance the plot, but it's hard to notice. Only those in places of high power are one-dimensional demons.
Khalil is credited with the art in this book, and his work is solid and innovative. Reminding me a bit of Craig Thompson, the lines are thin but extremely detailed. Panel layouts go from standard grids to experimental layouts that cover the blogger's dreams or the nightmares experienced by the prisoners. Some visuals are particularly effective, such as when Khalil wants to show the complexities of life for ordinary Iranians or really amplify the terror of living in fear of making a mistake that could cost you your life. Almost every page is packed to bursting with details, leaving the reader with no doubt as to the world these characters live in. Not only does the book have an important verbal message, it carries important artistic weight as well.
Zahra's Paradise is one of those graphic novels that fits the term perfectly. It's a dense, important story told in pictures. I think we'll be reading about this book for years to come, either as a harbinger of what could be but never was or as a sign that change might be in the air for Iran, just as it has been in other countries. I wish I could be as hopeful as the afterwards in the book, but as I type this, Egypt's revolution is grinding under a military heel, pregnant protesters in America are being harmed to the point of miscarriage, England wants plans to shut down cell phone service at will, and bills are being passed in a "democracy" allowing for military detentions of citizens. At the rate things are going, the peace of the grave, such as we see at the end of this book, might be the only peace left for those not in power. If you are at all interested in social change, you must read Zahra's Paradise. Even if hope is faint, seeing a glimmer of it may be uplifting. Just be sure to bring the tissues if you're sensitive.