Zahra's Paradise
by Khalil, Amir (First Second, 2011)

Zahra's Paradise is a "true" account in that it's actually many true stories compressed into one fictionalized narrative. It's hard to read but it's also deeply moving, relevant and necessary. It is an unflinching look at the effects of totalitarianism.

Set in the aftermath of the 2009 riots that occurred in Iran after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the sixth and current president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the story concerns the search of a mother for her son, Mehdi, as told through the eyes of his brother, Hassan. A protester in the riots against what many believed was a corrupt election, Mehdi is one of many who disappeared into the meat grinder of Iran's "justice" system. The heartbreaking search for the missing man takes place across Tehran, through prisons, morgues and hidden mass graves. The family encounters help in the form of a kindly cab driver, the daughter of a disgraced former general and the mistress of a prison guard.

What is often lost in the crossfire of international coverage is that the majority of Middle Easterners want only to live in a state of peace as opposed to near constant war. Yet deep-rooted government corruption is the norm and they are left to deal with the aftermath. The artist and writer of this graphic novel, who remain anonymous, put faces and voices to the oppressed in the "person" of Mehdi, in the name of pursuing the real story. Mehdi stands for the virtually thousands of citizens, mostly students, who have been killed or locked away, yet in the face of death and torture the fight for truth continues.

Mehdi's "story" is told with straightforward truth and biting sarcasm, with deep sadness and a plea for awareness. Drawn in a style highly reminiscent of the very energetic Craig Thompson, this humorous, loving, searing account is a testimonial that pulls together and enlarges fragmented news stories into a much more understandable narrative. There is so much to know that it's almost too much to absorb, so a second reading may be necessary. The notes at the end of the book are necessary, so be prepared to reference them often. It's worth the trouble.

Zahra's Paradise highlights the importance and uses of social media and technology such as cell phones, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, computer hacking and, yes, graphic novels, in order to bring to light what could once have been kept hidden. Unlike Persepolis, which was highly personal, it's the search and the turmoil that are at the forefront, with the characters being more in service to the series of events. Wrenching but vitally engaging, the tale of "Mehdi" will stay in your heart long after you've put the book down.

review by
Mary Harvey

16 March 2013

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