Last year as the Egyptians protested against Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad showed his support for the popular uprising by saying that, “a new Middle East is emerging without the Zionist regime and U.S. interference, a place where the arrogant powers will have no place”. At the same time, the Iranian authorities cracked down on anti-government protests within the country led by the supports of opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi. In the most recent example of the Iranian regime’s brutal authoritarianism is the Iranian’s Supreme Court’s sentence for the execution of Saeed Malekpour, a programmer who created a photo sharing software.
Earlier this week Reuters reported large scale Internet disruption in Iran as the March 2 parliamentary elections draw near. The Internet disruption seems to have lasted only for a couple of days and the cut-off seems to have effected all encrypted international websites that rely on Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol such as Google’s Gmail service. Since Iran’s Ministry of Communication and Technology has denied any knowledge of the blockage, it is unclear whether the disruption was aimed at blocking communication among the social media activists or if the Iranian government is attempting to implement it’s own version of the Internet that filters content according to the liking of the Iranian leaders.
Although, the Iranian activists and bloggers face Internet blockages, risk arrest and serve punishment for protesting and speaking out against the government, in an increasingly digital world that gives the ability to tell powerful narratives to artists, bloggers, activists, social media users and professional journalists alike, the Iranian regime’s suppression of ideas is only one side of the story. The other side is the fact that storytellers continue to find creative ways of putting together compelling accounts of personal, political, historical and social narratives.
In my quest for finding interesting digital media projects that tell social, political and human narratives I discovered Zahra’s Paradise. This digital storytelling project is a webcomic that tells the fictional story of a mother whose 19 year old son Mehdi goes missing in the protests in Iran following the disputed presidential elections in 2009. The most interesting aspect of this graphic novel is that it is produced through the collaboration of an Iranian-American author (Amir), Arab illustrator (Khalil) and a Jewish publisher (Marc Siegel). [How’s that for irony?]. The webcomic speaks to a global audience not only because it was digitally available but also because it has been translated into a number of languages.
Zahra’s Paradise is not the first time a graphic novel has commented on Iran’s authoritarian regime. In 2000, Marjane Satrapi created Persepolis in which she illustrates her experience of growing up in Iran during the Iranian Revolution during the 70s. Amir and Khalil appear to draw their inspiration from Satrapi and take it a step further by integrating digital stories from the country.
The creators of the webcomic used real personal stories and images coming out of Iran through bloggers and social media activists to create a larger world in which a mother and a blogger/tech-savvy brother frantically search for the missing young activist. The comic which was originally published online in small episodes three days a week takes it’s name from the largest cemetery in Iran on the outskirts of Tehran called “Behesht-e-Zhera” (Zahra’s paradise). The name evokes a sense of despair and morbidity, but at the same time it also gives a sense of hope by remembering the detained, missing or murdered sons and daughters of Iran whose stories deserve to be told.
“The notion that Iran is crushed, that Iran is finished, that the regime has silenced Iranian people is utterly wrong”, said Amir, the author of the comic, said in a BBC interview.
The following excerpt from the comic is from the second chapter called “Aftermath”.