Zahra's Paradise Casts Light Into a Dark Place / by Spandexless


by Abigail Ortlieb

In 2009, elections in Iran sparked a large-scale protest against the government, citing that the elections were corrupt.  This event, sometimes referred to as the Green Wave, resulted in many deaths and what many people believe the death of the Iranian Republic.  Zahra's Paradise is a fascinating, heartbreaking look into the many facets of that revolution.

Politics are always at play in newspapers, news sites, magazines, and social media.  Words are powerful, and in a graphic novel, all of the information from all of those sources and first-hand encounters can be gathered and combined into a compelling story, illustrated not with photos but characters and metaphors.  That is Zahra's Paradise. 

Besides being beautifully drawn, Khalil, the illustrator, takes Amir's powerful writing and deviates from straight character depiction into symbolic representations.  To these two, people are sometimes more or less than human—they are scarecrows and vultures, forces of nature and pure blazing spirit.  It is this occasional divergence from the rest of the character drawings that comes off as especially striking; the story is realistic, but when these pieces of imagery surface, you are reminded that this isn't just a history—it is meant to stir your emotions so that you can feel the shock and painc and despair and hope of the Iranian people.

As a narrative, it follows Amir's blog about his missing brother, Mehdi, and his mother's search for him after the street riots when the Basij, subordinates of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, attacked both the active and peaceful protestors.  The people that they meet in their search each have a tale to tell, and so the story gives perspective from many political views through these characters.  In this way, the book is able to avoid being overzealous.  As with all politics, you have to understand the different sides to have a clear view, and while the novel sides with the protestors, it is not a work of extremist fiction.  It remains realistic and moving.

Although Amir narrates the story, it is Zahra, his mother, who ultimately drives the sentiment and plot.  A devout Muslim and passionate mother, she finds herself struggling with the views of the people she encounters.  Her ideal Iran has been tarnished, and as the story progresses and she learns more and more that leads her to Mehdi, the Iran that she loves dies.  The title of the book is the name of a cemetery, Zahra's Paradise, and this location is brought up time and again in her search as a symbolic foil of the despair in her country and her heart.

When history looks back on the Green Wave, it will be condensed and eventually just become a few short words on a timeline; Zahra's Paradise views the rebellion from the eyes of the individuals that history may overlook—store owners, taxi drivers, government members, and most importantly, family.  Zahra's Paradise does not condense or eliminate any of these people, for they were at the heart of it all.  If ever there were a graphic novel that illustrated beautifully and honestly the troubles of a nation, Zahra's Paradise would be it. 

TL;DR The story of one mother’s search for her missing son spans so much more than just family.  Zahra’s Paradise is a beautiful graphic novel that explores the real politics and lives of everyday Iranian people in the aftermath of a corrupt election.

Zahra’s Paradise is written by Amir with artwork by Khalil and is published by First Second. Though the authors remain anonymous for political reasons, you can learn more about them on the book’s website. You can purchase it at your local comic book and book shops everywhere or, support Spandexless by purchasing it through our Amazon web store.

A review copy of Zahra's Paradise was graciously provided to Spandexless by the publisher.

Abigail currently writes freelance reviews for Spandexless and, among others, and owns her own company, The Eccentric Perspective, creating wearable artwork.  She has her B.A. in English and plans on graduate school, but refuses to ever drop the title, “Jack of All Trades.” You can find her online through her website or on Facebook.