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"Zahra's Paradise": An Interview with Amir and Khalil

[Cover of Amir and Khalil's [Cover of Amir and Khalil's "Zahra's Paradise."]

[The writer Amir and the artist Khalil (both have chosen anonymity for political reasons) began publishing the webcomic Zahra’s Paradise online in February 2010. This week, First Second Books will publish Zahra’s Paradise as a graphic novel. Jadaliyya interviewed Amir and Khalil on the occasion of the book’s publication.]

Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?

Amir: When we started Zahra's Paradise, we simply wanted to tell the story of today's Iran. As a kid growing up in Iran, I had witnessed, first-hand, the stories of what was happening to people in Evin Prison. Those abominable crimes had gone unpunished. And so murder, rape, and many other grave violations taking place inside Evin were being equated with the fundamentals of my religion, culture, and tradition. And not just in 1979. Things were so bad, and remained so bad for so long, that Human Rights Watch called one of its reports about Iran "Like the Dead in their Coffins."  

As a student, and later a human rights activist, I had tried everything I could to demolish Evin prison by shedding light on the crimes taking place inside it. I sent letters to the United Nations and petitions to President Khatami. I wrote articles in newspapers and gave speeches at conferences. But it all seemed so useless, like a scream with no sound, and a cry with no echo. The only way I can describe the feeling is that a wolf, dressed up in religious garb, had broken into my house, Iran, and it was busy ripping and tearing Iran's children apart. No one seemed to notice or care about the tragedy taking place in Iran. At a certain point you start to question not only yourself, and your countrymen, but also the world. You wonder what is the point of knowledge if it does not get translated into action? What is the point of law if it does not get translated into life?  

So, at some very deep level, Zahra's Paradise is not a message as much as it is a mirror. It does not tell people what to do or feel. It simply asks them to witness a reality and decide where they stand. What has been phenomenal from our perspective is not our message, but the message publishers and readers around the world are sending through Zahra's Paradise. And that message is strong and clear. People from Italy to Korea and Germany to Turkey are putting the wolves on notice. The world does care about the fate and future of Iran. The world does put a price—a very high one—on human life. In our age, an age where the boundaries of space, time and language are collapsing, there is truly a sense of oneness. And so, sooner or later, the gates of Evin prison will break down in much the same way that the Berlin Wall came down. You cannot bury life in death.
J: Is the book based on a true story?

Nothing in Zahra’s Paradise was invented; it is a sort of collage made up of real-life events strung together to make sense of what can sometimes seem too absurd to be true. At first, our idea was to tell the story of a real Iranian mother whose son was killed in the aftermath of the fraudulent elections of 2009 and who became quite famous thanks to YouTube videos posted on the net. But we decided instead to write a fiction based on this real-life story in order to avoid inadvertently further exposing this mother to the wrath of the Iranian regime. In Zahra’s Paradise, every page, every image, and every word have been inspired by the demonstrations of June 2009 and by the courage, humor, and suffering of the Iranian people. To add to the realistic tone of our graphic novel, I have drawn all of the bad guys (the head of the judiciary, the torturers, the Evin prison official) to look like some real-life infamous Iranian officials; some of our readers who are familiar with these people will be able to recognize them even if they’re named differently and fictionalized in our story.

J: Amir, when did you leave Iran and under what circumstances?

Amir: I left Iran when I was twelve, almost a year after the revolution of 1979. It was not my decision. After his return to Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini established revolutionary courts presided over by a hanging judge named Ayatollah Khalkhali. That's when the reign of terror started. The revolutionaries started executing thousands of people by labeling them as  "mofsid fil-ard" (corruption on earth) and moharebs (enemies of God). Thousands of Iranians were killed with no evidence, no proof, simply by virtue of an accusation. It was a modern Inquisition: the state became an instrument for religious and political persecution. That was the beginning of a massive exodus that continues to this day.

J: How do you see life today in Iran, two years after the story portrayed in the book?

Amir: Life in Iran is as unpredictable and paradoxical as ever. The Iranian people know that change is on its way. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has destroyed his own religious and political legitimacy. Like the caliphs before him, he has become the slave of his soldiers rather than the servant of his people. He bribes the revolutionary guards with larger and larger chunks of Iran's economy in exchange for protection against the Iranian people. Such a formula can only backfire. The fact is that the Ayatollah rules Iran by virtue of sixty or so votes cast by a bunch of cronies, so-called religious experts. Most of them are so old they should be in a museum alongside other fossils. He also has twelve other cronies on the Council of Guardians, a religious politburo specializing in rigging elections by disqualifying candidates for the presidency and parliament. Virtually all of these crooks sanctify the charade that as deputies of God and representatives of an absent messiah, they have a religious obligation to act as the vanguard of the heavens on earth. This entire edifice is sustained by fraud and force. It's only a question of time before the whole thing comes crashing down. Lies have a way of unraveling. What is funny is that the Ayatollah used Ahmadinejad as an attack dog against his reformist enemies, Iran's former revolutionary establishment, and now he is trying to get rid of the attack dog before Ahmadinejad turns on him. Things may appear quiet on the surface, but expect fireworks!   

J: What sort of a future do you envision for Iran?

Amir: The Iran of my dreams is not such a remote place. It is already here. The challenge is not to dream of it. The dream is beating in the hearts of millions of Iranians around the world. The challenge is to summon that Iran—an Iran that is full of love and life, generosity and compassion, humor and humility. The Islamic Republic may look like a monster, but in terms of the sweep of Iranian history, a few decades is barely a blip. It is Khomeini's dream, a vision of Iran as a religious utopia that is neither East nor West. But, the neither-nor republic rejects and negates everything, and ends up standing for nothing. Just look at the disputes among Iran's revolutionary establishment.

But if you want to see the real Iran, look deeper. Beneath the xenophobic surface you will find a global Iran whose people have the power to integrate East and West, to affirm and absorb all that is vital and vibrant in other traditions without losing their own. That Iran is like a kaleidoscope, it can bring the world together and move it forward with a passionate sense of the oneness of creation and unity of life. As a cradle of monotheism, the Persian mind, spirit, whatever you want to call it, seeks unity where there is division and harmony where there is conflict. This spirit is all about connecting and relating across boundaries that divide and deny our humanity. It is about touching life with love, seeing one's own reflection in others. It has nothing to do with enmity and hatred.

You see that spirit in Iran's poetry. Consider the verse from Hafiz, the great Persian poet: "plant the seeds of friendship, for it brings boundless joy, uproot the saplings of enmity, for it brings untold sorrow." That is a very different message from the nonsense spewing out of the sewers of politics. And that message—friendship—is rooted in centuries of history and culture blazing in the heart of millions, etched in the fabric of the Persian language. A few terrorists cannot kill a tradition that has lived inside a people for centuries. Rulers come, rulers go. Dynasties rise, and dynasties fall. But Hafiz stays. Khayyam stays. Rumi stays. They stay because they are the authors and frames of Iran's constitution: their vision and their way are what occupy the heart and the imagination of the Iranian people.

Given the Iranian people's cultural roots and heritage, the kind of democracy that can originate in Iran can turn Aristotle and Greek ideas of democracy and the polis on their head. Aristotle begins his Politics by dividing the world between reason and the passions; citizens and slaves; civilization and nature. The undercurrent is that the superior should dominate the inferior. You rule by virtue of your reason. And reason is the exclusive property of a ruling class—Greek citizens. And it is thus natural and proper that philosophers, endowed as they are with the faculty of reason, should rule inferior creatures dominated by the passions: women, children, slaves, and animals. There you have it, an intellectual catastrophe built into the foundations of Western philosophy, and, thanks to Aquinas, and to a lesser extent, Khomeini, buried in the philosophical origins of our modern ideas about the state and religion.

Whether it is in Iran, Ireland, or Italy, this kind of rational dogma and religious prejudice becomes the basis for legal exclusion. It is so much easier to justify and sanctify all kinds of violence and abuse against so-called inferior creatures—women, children, slaves, and animals—on the grounds that they lack reason and religion, morality and virtue, purity and piety. The slightest hint of their presence can pollute an otherwise “pure” tribe, culture, or community. They are, by definition, illegal, and, if illegal, then criminal, and, if criminal, then legitimate targets for execution, elimination, exile, and extradition. So whether we call it "Iran," "Islam," or "Europe," our ideas of the polis, and thus citizenship, remain very parochial. We are at the cusp of a global age, we face global challenges, and yet our ideas of humanity are still bound and buried in nonsense about tribe and territory (although not so much in Norway).

So yes, the protest movement in Iran, one that has spread to the Arab world and beyond, has the power to expand our ideas of democracy and community. Iranian women and youth are certainly challenging the authority of centuries of death built into the foundation of Aristotelian morgues of reason and religion: false ideals of man enshrined in the image of philosophers, clerics and soldiers. All this rot—an enormous amount of misery and suffering—clings onto the corpse of Aristotle by virtue of our faith in the supremacy of the male intellect, whether it is packaged in the institutions of philosophers and their democracies or theologians and their theocracies. By rooting reason in love, and politics in life, the protest movement taking place in Iran can release the world, not only from the specter of Khomeini, but also from the curse of Aristotle.    

J: Do you have particular fears about the publication of Zahra’s Paradise that lead you to publish it anonymously?

Khalil: Since we started serializing Zahra’s Paradise on the web in February 2010, we have received a number of strangely threatening messages—which we presume may be coming from the government in Iran—as well as statements meant to discredit our work, since it reaches deep inside of Iran and is read there. We take those messages as a compliment of sorts, an indication that our graphic novel isn’t leaving the authorities indifferent.

Are we scared for our personal safety and that of our loved ones? Is that why we’re hiding our true identities? Honestly, yes And nobody should be surprised. The Iranian government has consistently shown its ruthlessness against those who dare to denounce it. The important thing is that, thanks to our anonymity, we have been entirely free to speak the truth without self-censoring in the least.   

J: What are the reactions to Zahra’s Paradise that have struck you most?

Khalil: We have been extremely gratified to see people from the entire world reading Zahra’s Paradise online in French, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and so on—identifying so strongly with our story, proving that human beings everywhere are one big family. We have received messages of support and solidarity from all five continents and in more languages than we ever thought possible.

J: What are you working on now?

Khalil: We are in the early stages of a couple of projects. Among these, we plan to follow in the footsteps of our main protagonist, Hassan, the blogger whose brother disappeared and who, at the end of our story, has to escape to Turkey, like so many real-life bloggers and activists have done before him in order to survive. We want to see, through his eyes, what those exiled Iranians are doing in Istanbul and further explore the possible repercussions of the Jasmine Revolution—and the rest of the Arab Spring currently unfolding—on the destiny of our characters in Iran.

To be continued, therefore…       

Excerpt from Zahra’s Paradise:

[Excerpted from Amir and Khalil, Zahra's Paradise. First Second Books, 2011. For more information about the book, or to order a copy, click here.]

1 comment for ""Zahra's Paradise": An Interview with Amir and Khalil"


With greatest interest I read this chapter of the design book. It is full of information we do not usually receive, and it certainly is a new and futuristic type of book, too serious to be called comic. In spite of the tragic content, there is so much hope expressed between the lines,hope for Iran and its lovely people. "Love cannot be buried"

Christoph Wagner Brausewetter wrote on January 27, 2012 at 02:15 PM

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