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Good Letters

In their their graphic novel, Zahra’s Paradise, author Amir and illustrator Khalil open with a mundane but striking image for life in Iran. A family’s dog has a litter of puppies, and the boy begins to name them after figures from Persian literature. The father, however, chases the mother dog off with rocks, shouting, “Shoo, before I tear out your filthy whore’s womb!” then gathers up the pups in a bag and beats them to death with a shovel.

The incident captures the disturbing confluence of violence, tribal patriarchy, and cruelty of the Iranian regime. Cruelty differs from violence, but only as the father’s hand differs from the shovel. When his wife complains that she doesn’t want the pups buried in their yard, the father responds that the butcher doesn’t sell dog meat and they can’t very well put on a funeral in the city cemetery. In other words, the puppies’ deaths were a given, inevitable; what to do with their bodies is a logistical question.

So he throws them in the river, and as they sink, the narrator speaks of ablution and a lost generation.

Zahra’s Paradise is a huge cemetery outside of Tehran, named after the Prophet’s daughter. It’s where the faithful are interred en route to Heaven as well as where the government hides the bodies of detainees killed outside of due process.

In the novel, Mehdi Alavi goes missing after protesting the Iranian elections of June 12, 2009, and the narrative follows his mother and his brother Hassan’s search for him. It’s a book about individual dignity, the importance of rights, and the spiritual sickness of a whole country.

Hassan and his mother’s quest takes them all over Tehran, offering readers a snapshot of modern Iran. It’s a country where a group of theologians can veto laws and the bodies of criminals hang from cranes. It’s also a country where a female journalist is among the scourges of the conservative government and cabbies get their news from the BBC and quote Hafez. The morality police, the Basij, exercise arbitrary authority and yet are openly scolded by desperate mothers. M.C. Escher, Metropolis, and Bob Marley are as much part of the popular consciousness as Rumi and Omar Kayyam.

The irony is that we in the West tend to look at Iran as a primitive country because it is ruled by religious authorities, whereas it is, in many ways, more cosmopolitan than we are. And let us not forget that, while despotism belongs to the ancient world, totalitarianism is an invention of modernity.

We also tend to assume that people under such regimes must be isolated and possibly brainwashed. But the evidence of literature, film, and personal conversations suggests to me that it is hard to lie to a whole country. (Perhaps the real question is how willing people are to lie to themselves—and for what reasons.) In one harrowing sequence, a group of cabbies outside the morgue compares the politicians’ in-fighting to a bloody game of chess and wonders, “What kind of future awaits a country where the old cannibalize the young?”

At the same time, living under totalitarian rule can distort one’s reality. When you cannot count on due process and a state-run propaganda mill attempts to shape reality in its own image, it can feel like you’ve entered a Kafkaesque world. There’s no paper trail of Mehdi, yet it is unimaginable that he would not have come home were he able. “They’d never seen his face or heard his name! As if Mehdi somehow never existed!” observes Mehdi’s brother, Hassan, in a dark moment.

Amir and Khalil create under pseudonyms “for political reasons,” as the book jacket has it. When protesting in the street can get you killed, publishing a book critiquing the Council of Guardians and accusing them of murdering innocent citizens becomes a bold political and humanitarian act. One striking panel shows Ayatollah Khomeini and his eventual successor Ayatollah Khamenei as Michelangelo’s God and Adam. Between them runs a mock-hymn to the hangman’s crane:

And so it was, and so it is,
That God’s children dangle upon a noose
Holding them between the Ayatollah’s Heaven and Earth.
Where the crane stands, the Ayatollah stands.
And where the crane falls, the Ayatollah falls.
Until then, all live under the shadow of the Ayatollah,
The crane.

Throughout, poetry and the arts serve as the counterpoint to the Council of Guardians’ view of the world. We writers and artists in the West make similar claims for imagination but without the same gravity. We complain that it’s hard to get paid for our work; they cling to concepts of justice, dignity, and beauty as if for life. A printer claims all “enlightened” Iranian thinking boils down to “a verb and an object: Death to America! Behead the infidel!” and scoffs at how they compare to Hafez:

Plant the tree of friendship for it bears
Boundless joy.
Uproot the tree of enmity for it summons
countless sorrows.

Amir and Khalil try to end on a note of hope, but prior to that is a still more powerful moment of lament. “Refuse to die, my son,” cries a forlorn mother. “Rise up from this grave! Rise out of this dust!”

Breathe, breathe, my prince of Persia.
Breathe, breathe, in the name of our prophets,
in the name of our poets.
Breathe in their every word.
Breathe so that all that is dead may come back to life.
Breathe for I am dead.
Breathe for I must touch you again, love you again,
again and again …

As testament, Zahra’s Paradise bears witness to the subjugation of a polity. As document, it cries out to the world not to forget that Iran is not first a totalitarian state but a historic people. As lament, it holds out hope that to cry, to mourn, to speak one’s grief is to eventually find an ear to hear, some human connection, something truly worth dying for.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Brad Fruhauff

Brad Fruhauff helps people put their stories into words as a freelance copywriter, editor, and ghostwriter. He lives with his wife and two sons in Evanston, Illinois. Find out more at

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