“Everything about this book, including meeting you, has been serendipity,” says a surprised Amir Soltani, when I tell him my name.
In Delhi to speak at the Comic Con about his graphic novel Zahra’s Paradise, Soltani talks about the book’s origin that he wrote - a 20 second YouTube video which showed a woman burying her son in Iran’s vast cemetery, Behesht-e-Zahra (Zahra’s Paradise in English) during the 2009 protests against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
“On her face, there was shock, grief, anger, denial. It was something I had seen happen over and over again and this story had to be told,” he says.
That story of a mother, Zahra, looking for her son, Mehdi, who ‘disappeared’ during the crackdown on protests, is common to all countries ravaged by conflict.
Told through the eyes of her other son, Hassan, a blogger, it was also a story that could only have been told as a serialised web comic.
“We were seeing what was happening in Iran through the internet. It made sense to tell the story on the internet as well,” says Soltani.
Artist Khalil, who created the beautifully stark black-and-white images, based many of them on real photos and videos people took during the protests.
“We think of ourselves as co-authors. The book is a collage of stories and images coming from the people of Iran,” he adds.
As a graphic novel about Iran, the book has garnered comparisons to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a memoir of her childhood during the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
“In many ways, Persepolis opened up the ground for Zahra’s Paradise and made it fertile,” says Soltani.
The book’s art is intensely political, at times ironical, and at times almost surreal - the Ayatollah is perpetually scowling, traffic jams are depicted to the last chaotic detail, the Iranian judiciary is portrayed as a cleric’s jaw, through which a conveyor belt of prisoners pass every day.
Yet, at its core, Zahra’s Paradise is about how the people of Iran, especially its women, find ways to reaffirm life. At one point, a character remarks in the novel, “They think they can silence our women, beat our Zahras down or blot out her memory.”
As Zahra’s Paradise unfolds, you realise that it is a book peopled by female rebels, its many Zahras: the main protagonist, determined to find her son, the Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi who was raped, tortured and killed in an Iranian prison and the prophet’s daughter Fatima Zahra.
"All over the world, in India, Iran, Tunis, Egypt, it is women are sowing the seeds of rebellion. Systems of power play out on the bodies of women but they are the ones hitting against the wall”, says Soltani.