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A Canvas for Popular Dissent: Zahra’s Paradise

Charlotta Salmi

Amir Soltani and “Khalil”
Zahra’s Paradise (2010-11)

One of Iran’s most famous literary figures comes from a graphic memoir: Marjane Satrapi’s hijab-clad avatar in her coming of age story Persepolis (2000). Juxtaposing the human face (and fate) against the stark and brutal reality of the Islamic Republic, Satrapi’s monochrome self-portrait has become an icon not only for a female Iranian subjectivity, but an alternative, individual history to that of the oppressive state. As such, it is exemplary of the political potential of the comic as a literary medium. The graphic novel’s overt relationship to metaphor and symbol—turning complex three-dimensional referents to two-dimensional lines—lends it a double-edged ability to evoke and provoke, at once distilling and reducing complex realities into consciously naive images.Persepolis Admittedly this reliance on symbol comes with some risks (we only have to look to the tragic events of the Danish Cartoon Controversy [1] in 2005 to see the reductive tendency of the illustrated image to stereotype), but it also has much to offer to contemporary modes of cultural resistance. Persepolis’s more nuanced deployment of the comic image has inspired a creative use of the graphic form for popular protests.

The most provocative of these is perhaps Amir and Khalil’s graphic novel, Zahra’s Paradise (2011), which tells the story of a mother in search of her son following the Green Revolution [2]. Written shortly after the 2009 protests as an online webcomic, it tells the story of the “lost” Iranian generation who flooded the streets of Tehran to protest against the fraudulent elections and, as a result, got caught up in “the stream of history.” The novel was inspired by a YouTube clip of a grieving mother and draws on the many different forms of media used by the protesters—blogs, tweets and text messages—to produce not only a counter-current to the metanarrative of the Iranian state, but to pose a challenge to a much longer form of oppressive representation: a narrative imposed by Western players in the region. Such a narrative is measured by the “tic-toc tic-toc” of the British Empire which kept, as one character comments, the Iranian state “trapped in their clocks.” Amir and Khalil thus use their novel’s intermediality (as work that is both a blog and a text) to stage a form of contemporary protest that is at once transnational and locally rooted, challenging both a history of imperial encounters and the contemporary, oppressive and insular state. The comic’s website [3] is explicitly aimed at both a domestic and international audience, with translations of the texts into Farsi, Italian, French and Finnish available at the mere click of a mouse.

PersepolisThrough the work’s intermediate relationship with its audience, it achieves the political potential that is embedded within the graphic form. The comic, as its critics hasten to point out, relies on a collaborative act between writer and reader in its construction of meaning. Because time itself is spatialised on the graphic page, broken down into stills or framed panels, its passage occurs in the white spaces between boxes, within what comic writers call “the gutter”. The reader must leap over such spaces to fill in the gaps that the text can only gesture towards in its panels. This act of reading is referred to as closure. In Zahra’s Paradise, this narratological feature is used to bring Zahra’s family’s search to the reading experience: the protagonists’ longing for answers translates into the reader’s desire for closure. The reader thus becomes an active participant not only in the making of meaning, but in Amir and Khalil’s characters’ painful quest. In accompanying Zahra’s attempt to fill in the blanks of her son Mehdi’s story, we get caught between the frames; like Iran’s lost generation, the reader is sucked into Tehran’s gutters.

Accompanying Zahra through the side alleys and seedy bureaucratic offices, witnessing underground beatings and prison torture, we are, in fact, taunted by the text which offers glimpses of Mehdi, whilst refusing resolution. His face is repeatedly reproduced on other screens and panels—his brother’s blog, the photocopier that reproduces his flattened image onto a missing person’s poster, the still caught in a camera phone. But instead of amounting to an increasingly detailed picture of his character, these refracted images deflect rather than reflect Mehdi’s physical presence in the text. His body is never seen unmediated in the novel, and his face remains a blank slate, a silhouette without features that could be anybody: “the signature of a people without a name, without a face, without a history, without a future.” Even when Mehdi’s body is finally returned at the end of the novel, it is in a closed casket. While the text offers an end to Zahra’s search, there is no effective visual closure for the reader, leaving us, like Zahra, filled with a sense of absence at the novel’s narrative climax.

PersepolisThe effect of Amir and Khalil’s novel rests on this deferred moment of closure or arrival in Zahra’s Paradise—the colloquial name for Tehran’s cemetery where the government leased a plot of land in which protesters were made to disappear after June 2009. Zahra is the name of the pure daughter of the prophet Muhammed, whom Zahra’s character, like the cemetery, is named after. The quest narrative—a search for the martyrised Mehdi—thus becomes a quest for this other more sinister paradise: not the martyr’s search for spiritual reward, but the mother’s journey to the grave of her son. The irony, of course, rests in the double entendre of the word “paradise”. There is no sense of hopeful rebirth in Mehdi’s death, as demonstrated by Zahra’s intense suffering as she loses a child to the state. The cyclical nature of this journey, in which the final destination is eternally deferred (for both the characters and the reader), does, however, offer a model for effective political protest.

The fraught form of collaboration that the text achieves between its audience and creator speaks to the form of political solidarity that works like Amir and Khalil’s invitation outside of the world of the text. Zahra’s Paradise places its anti-state discourse within longer, transnational networks of resistance. Mehdi’s Iranian rap merges seamlessly into Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” as his brother and mother reminisce in his room; in their afterword, Amir and Khalil frame their work as an act of solidarity with those incarcerated in Evin prison by citing Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom; and while the novel ends with Mehdi’s burial, the epilogue introduces his pregnant girlfriend Yasmin. If the Green Revolution stemmed from forms of oppression and resistance that are not unique to Iran, its failure, in turn, gave birth to Tunisia’s Jasmine Movement [4]. While Mehdi’s family may have wandered around in circles, finding only his elusive shadow, the vision of cyclical temporality put forward by the text may in fact be productive. If there is little closure in the trauma of violent loss or resolution in the repetition of history, the circulation of images, nationally and internationally, can offer some form of political change.

Zahra has her own political afterlife through her circulation in yet another medium: she became the forefigure of a human rights campaign during the June 2013 elections. “Granted that I am fictional character, would you prefer me to the current candidates?” Zahra asks on the website [5]. Her figure was printed and photographed by activists who shielded their faces with hers, not only to swear their allegiance to the project, “I vote for Zahra”, but to indicate that such a vote means at once a non-political, human empathy with mothers who lose their children to state violence and an active solidarity with political student protests. Amir and Khalil thus channelled Satrapi’s visual shorthand for an alternative human history into a symbol of resistance ideal for mass dissemination. The intermedial use of Zahra’s figure (from YouTube to the webcomic, the graphic to the internet campaign, the promotional site to the photograph) subverted the image of the weeping mother of the martyr sanctioned by the state (and so visibly dominant on Tehran’s buildings) and echoed another viral movement in solidarity with student protest leader, Majid Tavakoli, who was photographed in a hijab by the revolutionary guard in an attempt to discredit him. After Tavakoli’s arrest, Iranian men around the world responded to the stigmatisation of female attire and the state persecution of protesters by posting pictures of themselves in hijabs beneath a resonant slogan: “Be a Man.” Combining these different graphic and photographic symbols, Zahra’s figure has become a site where political discourse is not only renegotiated, but constantly re-mobilised for revolutionary change, if not narrative resolution.

The graphic novel may not be entirely counter-establishment in its cultural mode, riding on the waves of a popular idiom that is as easily marketable as it is imminently readable—as Khalil comments frankly in an interview: “We’re putting the fun back in fundamentalism.” But as Zahra’s Paradise goes to show, it is undeniably subversive in its appropriation of symbols and dismantling of narrative structures. Through its frames and gutters, intertexts and intermediality, the graphic novel offers a canvas for the articulation of popular dissent, and turns ludic forms of protest into a grammar of resistance.

Charlotta Salmi [6] completed her DPhil in English Literature at Linacre College, Oxford. She is now a lecturer in World Literature and Postcolonial Studies at Queen Mary University of London.