Zahra’s Paradise (fiction)

Fraudulent elections.
Violence against protesters.
Hospitals invaded by the Revolutionary Guard.

World Wednesday takes us to Iran in the bloody days following the June 2009 elections which were manipulated by the powerful Supreme Guardian Council. Hundreds of thousands of students descended on Freedom Square in Tehran to demonstrate – many never returned home.

This unflinching graphic novel began as a webcomic about an anonymous Iranian blogger attempting to let the outside world know how Iranians felt about the election results. His family’s search for Mahdi represents all the missing students and the agonies suffered by their families while searching for them. Two chapters are still available on the book’s website with translations in ten languages.

Amir and Khalil also include information on the Omid Memorial, “hope” in Persian, which collects the names and stories of those who have perished in Iran while standing up for human rights since the 1979 Khomeini revolution.

Strong feelings, unfettered language, detailed black and white art – Zahra’s Paradise is not for the faint of heart, but is a call for human rights and freedom.

Book info: Zahra’s Paradise / written by Amir; artwork by Khalil. First Second, 2011. [book website] [publisher site] [book trailer]

Recommendation: Iran, summer 2009 – students protest against rigged elections, and Alavi’s brother doesn’t come home. It makes no sense; Mehdi was studying for his final exams so he wasn’t out partying. As Alavi and his mother search Tehran’s hospitals in this graphic novel, their despair deepens – is Mehdi one the many who have disappeared into Evin Prison, that horror of abuse and degradation?

Alavi prints up missing person posters with Mehdi’s picture, meeting a sympathetic copy shop owner near the university and a beautiful woman who reminds him of well-respected Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi. In 2003, Zahra was taken into Evin Prison for questioning and came out in a coffin. Chief Justice Mortazavi said she had tripped; an autopsy showed that she had been tortured and raped.

Swirling connections of corrupt officials and powerful politicians continue to block every avenue that the Alavis pursue in search of Mehdi. The few people who dare to help them are well aware of the risks involved, but what decent person wants another dead son dumped into an unmarked grave in Lot 309? Ah, Zahra’s Paradise, the cemetery named for the wife of the Prophet, has a growing hidden section that no one publicly mentions.

This intense graphic novel about struggle, power, and loss is a brutal testimony to the thousands of Iranians who asked for free elections and were silenced. The closing pages of the book contain their names, page after page in the smallest readable font, as part of the Omid Memorial, so that they may not be forgotten, even though their final resting places be unknown. It is no wonder that the author and artist published this compelling story using only fictitious first names.

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