The Revolution Sees its Shadow 10 Years Later

14 February, 2021

Zahra's Paradise   by Amir Soltani and Khalil was a first on the internet, a first for graphic novels, and a first in the history of political dissidence.

Zahra’s Par­adise by Amir Soltani and Khalil was a first on the inter­net, a first for graph­ic nov­els, and a first in the his­to­ry of polit­i­cal dissidence.

From Zahra to Yas­min, from the Islam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion to the Green Move­ment and the Arab awak­en­ings, Spring is inextinguishable

Mischa Geracoulis

Just as Punx­sutawney Phil saw his shad­ow on Ground­hog Day 2021, and pre­dict­ed anoth­er six weeks of win­ter, so too for the “Spring” upris­ings.  No longer sim­ply sym­bol­ic of the pre­dic­tion of pro­longed win­ter, “Ground­hog Day” pro­vides a go-to trope with mul­ti­ple appli­ca­tions.  Syn­ony­mous with anoth­er day in the ongo­ing Covid-19 pan­dem­ic lock­down, it also illus­trates hibernation—albeit forced—of the upris­ings that began ten springs ago.  Reflect­ing back on Amir & Khalil’s 2011 graph­ic nov­el, Zahra’s Par­adise, the long shad­ow looms.

A cur­rent read­ing of this his­tor­i­cal fic­tion revis­its a gut-wrench­ing ele­gy for Ira­ni­ans beat­en down, locked up, or dis­ap­peared, whose crime was to dare to stand up for civ­il rights.  Replete with a chill­ing list of 16,901 names com­piled by the Omid Memo­r­i­al project, the book, among oth­er things, attempts to memo­ri­al­ize the lives lost to the repres­sive Islam­ic Repub­lic.  The sto­ry’s graph­ic form makes it acces­si­ble to wide audi­ences, but by no means is it enter­tain­ment.  While Zahra’s Par­adise details the bru­tal­i­ties of a place-spe­cif­ic dic­ta­tor­ship, it’s not hard to extend the shad­ow across borders. 

In the Feb­ru­ary 2021 issue of Respon­si­ble State­craft, human rights leader Sarah Leah Whit­son writes that though each was unique, the spring upris­ings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syr­ia, Yemen, Bahrain [and the Iran­ian Green Move­ment] inspired one anoth­er.  Amir & Khalil, in their book’s “After­words,” explain the con­nec­tion as  a torch relayed from “Zahra to Yas­min.”  Zahra rep­re­sents Iran’s upris­ing, and Yas­min is for Tunisi­a’s.  These protests, Whit­son clar­i­fies, were not against impe­ri­al­ism or for­eign occu­pa­tion, but about cit­i­zens of indi­vid­ual nations ris­ing up against native-born tyran­ni­cal regimes to claim their rights and free­doms.  With­out mean­ing­ful transna­tion­al sup­port for their demo­c­ra­t­ic aspi­ra­tions, how­ev­er, the region’s pow­ers have done their best to extin­guish the spir­it of civ­il soci­ety, sup­press­ing chances for fresh pop­u­lar move­ments to spring up.

Ded­i­cat­ed to the sup­pressed, the absent, and the fall­en, Zahra’s Par­adise tells the sto­ry of gov­ern­men­tal crack­down and spring fore­stalled.  Hope for free­dom, it would seem, is beat­en back and buried, if the repres­sors have their way.  Ten years lat­er, Whit­son’s descrip­tion of “Springs that end in cru­el win­ter” is on par with the ground­hog’s fore­shad­ow­ing in 2021.

As for the nov­el, it’s a moth­er’s anguished search for her teenage son who does­n’t come home from a march in Free­dom Square.  Apt­ly named Zahra, she even­tu­al­ly con­fronts the awful truth of her son’s dis­ap­pear­ance.  Despair­ing, Zahra begs for her son to breathe.  Reel­ing for­ward to a dif­fer­ent time and place, this could be George Floy­d’s moth­er.  “I can’t breathe” could be the ral­ly­ing cry spilt over from Green to Black, from Neda (Agha-Soltan) to George.

Zahra’s Par­adise—both the sto­ry and the epony­mous giant ceme­tery out­side of Tehran—might lend itself as syn­ony­mous for refugees sub­sumed by the Mediter­ranean Sea, migrants giv­en over to the rav­ages of the Sono­ran Desert, Art­sahkis (Arme­ni­ans of Nagorno Karabagh) razed by the Azeris’ lat­est land grab, or even the freez­er trucks parked in the US and EU con­tain­ing the over­flow of Covid-19 vic­tims.  Iran’s Evin prison may be a metaphor for the US’s Guan­tanamo prison or Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) bor­der­land deten­tion cen­ters, or the Chi­nese intern­ment camps for Uyghurs.  The metaphors, alas, break the bar­ri­ers of time and place.

Mona Seif—the Egypt­ian human rights activist known for her par­tic­i­pa­tion in dis­si­dent move­ments dur­ing and after the 2011 Egypt­ian rev­o­lu­tion, as well as for her cre­ative use of social media in campaigns—recently spoke with PBS, and was asked by jour­nal­ist Nick Shifrin, in light of the fail­ures in Egypt, “Was it worth it?”  Was her tire­less work to decon­struct the regime in Egypt worth the pain, the sac­ri­fice, the prison time?  Shifrin asked Seif if she’s lost hope, to which she replies, “I no longer func­tion on hope.”  Turn­ing back to the US pre-elec­tion peri­od, when Stacey Abrams, Demo­c­rat leader in Geor­gia, was asked if she has hope, like Seif, Abrams inti­mat­ed that she does­n’t func­tion on hope.  Rather, she is determined. 

Zahra’s Par­adise, lit­er­al­ly and alle­gor­i­cal­ly, would be the final rest­ing place for lost souls, lives cut mer­ci­less­ly short, and rev­o­lu­tions halt­ed if not for deter­mi­na­tion, if not for the “immutable law of nature” that Sarah Leah Whit­son high­lights.  Spring is inex­tin­guish­able; it always returns.  Seeds of deter­mi­na­tion, she says, have been plant­ed.  The plan­et will turn, the sun will reach noon, and shad­ows will recede.  Accord­ing to Punx­sutawney Ground­hog Club pres­i­dent, Jeff Lundy, Punx­sutawney Phil promis­es that “one of the most beau­ti­ful and bright­est springs” is forthcoming. 

Arab uprisingsEgyptGreen MovementIranIslamic revolutionSyriaTunisiaYemen

TMR contributing editor Mischa Geracoulis is a writer and educator of critical media literacy, English for speakers of other languages, and those with learning differentials. Her writing, teaching and approach to life are informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some of her topics of research include the Armenian Genocide and Diaspora, restorative justice, equitable education and child welfare, and the multifaceted human condition. Her work has appeared in Middle East Eye, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Review of Books, Colorlines, Gomidas Institute, National Catholic Reporter, and openDemocracy, among others. Follow her on Twitter @MGeracoulis.

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