“The authors have chosen anonymity for obvious political reasons.” When you know something like that about a book – that lives were willing to be risked to get a story out – how could you possibly not read it? In the case of Zahra’s Paradise, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Written by Persian activist/journalist/documentary maker Amir and illustrated by Arab artist Khalil making his graphic novel debut, Zahra’s Paradise began as an online serial webcomic. In the name of worldwide access, the series was released simultaneously in English, Farsi, Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Korean, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Swedish, and Finnish. The story – set in the aftermath of Iran’s contested June 2009 presidential elections that declared incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad victor – was considered that important. Now with Iran back in near-daily headlines, the urgency to read Zahra’s Paradise grows ever stronger.
The book opens with a gruesome prologue that will be alluded to again and again throughout the coming pages: a brutal father forces his young son to witness the monstrous destruction of a litter of newborn puppies. In the prologue’s ending panels, the butchered, bagged remains sink down in a watery burial: “Now you too are in the stream touched by all that’s still and waiting. A lost generation buried inside the eye of this blog. Zahra’s Paradise.”
“[T]his blog” is the work of a young man named Hassan desperately searching for his younger brother, Mehdi Alavi, who disappeared from Freedom Square (the irony!) while protesting the outcome of the Iran’s elections. From June 16 to August 19, 2009, Hassan records his family’s desperate search via the technological tools remarkably still available to him – his phone camera, his computer, the internet – first for Mehdi himself, and then, as time passes, any news of Mehdi at all. Hassan and his mother beg, demand, even call in dangerous favors to work through a labyrinthine system of hospitals, prisons, government offices, the morgue, and even the cemetery just outside Iran’s capital city of Tehran known as Zahra’s Paradise, named after the prophet Mohammad’s daughter. What Hassan is able to unveil is worse than any nightmare …
That the resulting panes make for an unforgettable story might be enough, but that so much of this graphic fiction is indeed fact is a sobering, outrageous slap of reality. The creators use a “composite of real people and events,” supported by an appendix-like 40+ pages at volume’s end they label “Glossary” that serves as historical record. Most haunting are those final 13 pages of names – real, true, once-living brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents – that make up the “citizens of a silent city named Omid (‘hope’ in Persian).” Printed in near-blinding tiny type, these names are an ultimate reminder to “[l]et them challenge our conscience so that in the future we will prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.”
Readers: Young Adult, Adult