“As the world witnessed what could no longer be kept from view, through YouTube videos, on Twitter and in blogs, so this story came to be and had to be told,” Zahra’s Paradise
It is story of a family’s search for their son, Mehdi. A young protestor who has disappeared in the aftermath of Iran’s 2009 elections. Fictional in a historical setting, the story is a powerful account of how an election dispute shattered the lives of ordinary citizens.
I sat for a conversation with Amir, the Persian writer and Khalil, the Arab artist.
Pari: Why does Zahra's Paradise matter?
Amir: Hmm. I can answer you in a very subjective way. Zahra's Paradise allows me to tell a story, share it, and then the story is not mine anymore. It takes on a life of its own. Like a river, it flows through tongues, goes to places, and reaches people Khalil and I will never know. But there's as much joy in dreaming up a story as there is in letting go of a story, and somehow it matters because Khalil and I can exchange something that's really precious to us with others. So if we can share Zahra's Paradise it matters. If not, it doesn't.
Pari: Last summer's uprising in Iran received such a vast coverage. What does your story add to that?
Amir: I was very happy that the uprising in Iran got the media coverage it did. And, the coverage was often excellent. So, in a way, there's nothing I can add to what the Iranian people have achieved and the media has covered. The world's perception of Iran and Iranians has shifted. The Iranian people are a great people, and, after such terrible and nasty distortions, it's wonderful to have another reality--their humanity, courage, creativity and solidarity--reflected by the media.
Where I think a story like Zahra's Paradise adds a new dimension to the coverage is that we do not face the constraints of traditional media. Take time. Most news organizations have no time. They have to slice the Iran story into very narrow slots, and even then, the story of the Iran uprising has to compete with other events and get interrupted by commercials. So the lack of time translates into crunches in space, and thus, breaks in perception. Khalil and I are working in a different media--the graphic novel as serialized on the internet (thanks to the vision of Mark Siegel). So we can give the Iran story as much time and space as we can devote to it. And then, of course, it gets translated into quite a few languages, so all the traditional barriers to communicating across cultures--time, space and language--have collapsed.
Even better. We are not constrained by money. Khalil can draw whatever he imagines--so the cost of production is quite low.
And finally, we are not constrained by knowledge--a conventional idea of news as an accurate or instant reflection of reality. We can imagine reality by collapsing lots of stories into one without claiming to represent the truth about anyone. We'll see if this impressionistic approach adds anything to the coverage. Probably not. But the freedom is fun.
Pari: When did you leave Iran and how have you kept in touch since?
Amir: I left Iran when I was twelve years old, shortly after the revolution of 1979. I had the best childhood there, very sweet memories and connections, deep roots, so I guess roots are something that never leave us. It's hard not to stay in touch with friends and family.
Pari: You have been outside Iran for a long time and were not present during the uprising, how accurate is your account?
Amir: Zahra's Paradise is a fictional account about a fictional character but the story is set in an historical context that is real.
Pari: How much of the story is real and in what aspects allow your imagination to take over?
Amir: A lot of the story is rooted in reality, so I would say some of the events and emotions are very real. Although we have drawn on the struggle of families whose children have gone missing following the protests, almost all of the characters are imagined.
Pari: How do your own personal experiences influence the story telling and writing?
Amir: My personal experiences are a part of the story, though I'm not always sure how. I joke with my friends that I dropped out of a PhD program so this is my revenge!