Up to this point, all of the graphic novels I’ve studied have been written by American authors, depicting the Middle East and Middle Easterners from a Western, metropolitan, and ultimately imperialist perspective. The proliferation of these books after the 9/11 attacks could no doubt be explained by those little surges of fear that leap across American vertebrae when the Middle East comes up, as well as both the savvy, political intent, and guilty consciences of the white male authors. While some books have been more conscious of this than others–for good and ill–all of them have participated in established discourses about the Middle East that could broadly be described as imperialist. Zahra’s Paradise, however, is far more complicated in origin.
Though it emerged from the pens of an Iranian expatriate to America, an Algerian illustrator, and a Jewish artist, all of whom have kept strict anonymity for fear of reprisals, it is an American product published in English. Both it and Persepolis, which I am saving for last, are the work of Iranians who have moved or fled to the West and published there. This has obvious critical importance for any attentive reader attempting to figure out how to place these works in the current culture.
The West hovers mainly around the peripheries of the narrative in Zahra’s Paradise, since the plot that drives the story is a largely domestic affair. Beginning in the dusty clamour of the 2009 Green Revolution protests in Iran, the story follows the titular Zahra and her older son Hassan as they search for Mehdi, the younger child of the family, who has gone missing after marching with the protestors. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was reelected in an election widely believed to be fraudulent–with much cause–triggering mass demonstrations in the capital, Tehran. The authors attempt to use the fictional Mehdi as a figure or symbol representing thousands of lost youth whose fates remain obscure in the aftermath of the protests and subsequent crackdown. Hassan and Zahra, whose name she shares with a large cemetery in Tehran, use every means and connection available to them in a desperate attempt to reconnect to the lost Mehdi, and along the way allowing the authors to issue a blistering attack on the Islamic Republic’s ruling government.
My analysis of the book will take place in two distinct but overlapping arenas. The first is the book’s relationship to a Western audience as well as the Iranian people themselves. The second is the authors’ clear endorsement of technology (the book was originally a webcomic) as a powerful tool in the hands of ordinary people to bring justice or at least shame on oppressors.
Zahra’s Paradise issued from Western printing presses and was intended for a Western audience, though the original webcomic was also translated into Farsi and Arabic. Though the webcomic was a more cosmopolitan affair, the book was published first in English, and the language of Britain and the United States is the primary vehicle by which Amir, the author, has pursued his political activism. Edward Said writes of the necessity of a contrapuntal reading of cultural works. That is, in his view, a critic must consider both the literary output of the metropole and the response of the formerly occupied or colonized territories–the “distant lands” that are exoticized and oppressed by the Western nations. This book, covered throughout with explanatory notes and including a long glossary of terms and appendix in the back, seems best suited for an American audience with little knowledge about Iranian culture and history.
Critical reception to the book by its American and British audiences has been almost uniformly positive. One finds nary a criticism of the book in the numerous published reviews and news reports, which probably arises from both the book’s actual quality–to which I can attest–and the context of its publication. Zahra’s Paradise is simply too important, too essential to criticize, one suspects. The notice in the New York Review of Books has this as its penultimate paragraph:
Zahra’s despair is well-founded. According to a United Nations report on Iran that was released in late September, over 300 secret executions reportedly took place at Vakilabad Prison in 2010, and a further 146 secret executions have taken place in 2011. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 34 journalists had been detained by the end of 2010. One of them, Mohammad Davari, was sentenced to five years for making a series of videotaped statements by prisoners at the Kahrizak detention center who said they had been abused, tortured and raped.
This review, penned by Haleh Esfandiari, who, according to his bio, was detained in solitary confinement at Evin Prison for 105 days, understandably sees the book as more of a political act than an aesthetic object. No doubt his own experiences played an invaluable role in his essay, though most of it is taken up with synopsis rather than evaluation. Esfandiari’s writing is exemplary of the Western response to the book, which seems to me overly reverent. I am grateful that the book has given more attention to Iranians, who are often melted into a black-clad, menacing grin in the minds of Americans. Like Persepolis, the book draws on ancient Persian poetry and tradition as an indictment of present conditions and the hypocrisy of the authorities. It also reveals its namesake, Zahra, to be a pious Muslim whose faith is a source of empowerment as well as protest, and the final pages of the book proper are covered with her fervent lament. As this is a work of fiction, the author and artist are free to cast their characters as specific types, which they manage to do without effacing the presence of moral ambiguity.
The reception of the book in the West is also indicative of a popular appetite for stories condemning the regime in Iran. While the book itself takes proper care to emphasize that this is an Iranian struggle and one where the West is unwelcome, Zahra’s Paradise is also catering to a market whose size and flexibility was already established when it made a bestseller of Persepolis and established Joe Sacco’s reputation. Its reverent critical reception and wide media coverage indicates not a fault in the book but a continuing American hunger for images of oppressed Iranians suffering under a totalitarian regime. This in a country where the Iranian ruling class has already been thoroughly demonized by the press, government propaganda, and popular discourse. Zahra’s Paradise furthers this discourse, and also adds another twist to the proceedings, namely that of techno-activism.
Both the Green Revolution and Arab Spring revolts were widely covered in the American news, and one tool of the protestors in particular seemed to hog much of the attention: social media. This article, while it toes the standard line of the West as bringer of democracy and assumes capitalism and liberal values as standard, is a decent introduction to this issue. Unfortunately, many in the West act as though these technologies, often developed in the United States, are more important to the work of protest movements than the people participating in them!
Through the webcomic and various other campaigns, the collaborators behind this project have fully embraced what I call techno-activism, even putting Zahra up for Iran’s presidential election. Though the narrative of the novel itself designates normal Iranians as the heroic ones, its creators have, by targeting the work at a Western audience and using the Web as a publishing vehicle, given a hearty endorsement to techno-activism.
Within the story itself, major plot points revolve around gadgets and devices: Hassan’s computer, the copy machine at a local Internet café, secret discs, hacked files, an online community supporting Mehdi, and more are all crucial or at least play prominent roles in the plot. The destruction of said copy machine is a critical moment for a supporting character, who later exacts violent revenge on those who would dare assail his Japanese Canon machine. Technology, in Zahra’s Paradise, is functions overwhelmingly in support of the people, though space is given over to looking at how the regime itself tightens its grip using those same sophisticated devices. Given that the Web has been the primary means of publicizing and distributing the novel, it should come as no surprise that I believe that this text is surrounded and spilling over with enthusiasm for technology, within the text and in a larger digital culture.
Both the book’s Western reception and its nature as a hub of techno-activism within and surrounding the text show that Zahra’s Paradise cannot be considered a national response to imperial oppression in Said’s sense, at least not without significant complication. Because it was produced in the West and largely for the West and keeps such a cheery view of technological tools for organization, its political importance can be contested. While the images and text themselves make an impassioned plea for Western recognition of Iranian agency, its location in the Western media landscape have compromised this intent somewhat.
This is not to suggest that just because technological tools are of a Western origin that advocating their use constitutes imperialism. Far from it, since ideals of democracy and freedom that originated in the metropolitan states have borne much fruit in national resistance movements throughout the former colonized world. There is no reason technology cannot be the same way. At the same time, however, the extent to which these activists have leaned on the Web and social media in their story and in their promotion thereof should be subject to scrutiny. More analysis needs to be done on the ways that social media often unmasks anonymous users and can play into the hands of authoritarian governments (as well as “democratic” ones) and actually weaken radical political movements.