Iranian cartoons belong to a poetic tradition that carries political clout.
“Pens that do not write for Islamic values must be broken”, proclaimed Ayatollah Khomeini. While 20 years have passed since his death, the list of artists and intellectuals fleeing Iran to avoid arrest or the clutches of Ershad (the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance that oversees and censors everything) is still very long today.
The diaspora of Iranian intellectuals also includes graphic novelists and cartoonists. Indeed, since the success of Marjane Satrapi, they’re among the world’s most read Iranians. Satrapi became famous for her graphic novel Persepolis, released in four volumes between 2000 and 2003. It’s an account of the author’s life from childhood to the age of 25 when she finally moved to Europe. Twenty years of history described through the eyes of a young Iranian girl, the story of her family and country humorously portrayed from when the revolution overthrew the Shah to life under the ayatollahs.
Both hard-hitting and light-hearted, Persepolis is a blast of free imagination targeting all forms of fundamentalism.
This amazing publishing feat opened up the world market to other Iranian graphic novelists and comic-strip artists. The graphic novel An Iranian Metamorphosis is the true story of Mana Neyestani, imprisoned in Iran for of one of his drawings. “It all started with a cockroach”, explains the author. In 2006 Neyestani was working for a Tehran newspaper. Since his strips were meant for kids, he felt safe from the censorship usually applied to all reformist papers. Then Neyestani drew a cockroach and placed a single word in its speech bubble – namana, the Azerbaijani word for “what”. The Azeri Turks in the north of Iran have long been subject to discrimination. Neyestani’s drawing triggered rioting by the Azeri’s against those who “equate them to cockroaches”. Neyestani tried to argue his case, claiming he had no intention of offending anyone by using a word now also used by many Persian speakers in Iran. The Iranian police quelled the uprising in blood: 19 people were killed. At this point, the Iranian regime needed a scapegoat. Enter Neyestani. Thus began the Kafkaesque situation evoked in the graphic novel’s title: a nightmare journey through the Iranian prison system. No charges were brought against Neyestani, but he was nevertheless locked away for three months in Evin Prison, a facility where political dissidents are often detained and tortured. An Iranian Metamorphosis is the dramatic yet amusing story of those three months. It describes the persistent uncertainty, the fear of the secret services, the threats of torture but also the author’s resilience as he gradually comes to understand the self-reproducing mechanism he is prey to and from which there is no escape. The pared down style is enhanced by Neyestani’s talent for caricature as he deforms the story’s characters into a hyper-realistic portrait gallery packed with fat bureaucrats, unlikely criminals, kind illustrators and slimy traffickers. Until a chink in the prison bureaucracy finally appears and Neyestani, after being released on bail, seizes the opportunity and flees the country. His getaway with his wife also had shades of Kafka about it as they travelled first to Dubai then to Malaysia and China on a veritable pilgrimage to embassies and international organisations (which don’t come across too well in the story) on their quest for a visa to Europe. The pace picks up: time is running out, money is in short supply and at every airport their fake passports could be identified. In the end, France grants them asylum and visas. Iran today is a country suspended between past and present. The euphoria that marked the first year of Hassan Rouhani’s government has now given way to scepticism. Mana Neyestani now lives and works in France as an illustrator for several international magazines. In a recent cartoon, he drew Rouhani holding a key, a symbol used during his election campaign, but the door he’s supposed to open is locked with a numeric keypad and no keyhole. The key will not get him very far.