The Crash, Covid-19 and Other Iranian Stories

14 March, 2021
Read online or grab a pdf at  IranWire .
The Crash, Covid-19 and Oth­er Iran­ian Sto­ries, a graph­ic nov­el by Mana Neyestani Pub­lished by (2021)

Read online or grab a pdf at Iran­Wire.

Malu Halasa

In Tehran, lies, rumors and mis­in­for­ma­tion cir­cu­late about the Covid-19 vaccine.

Some spread by Aya­tol­lah Abbas Tabriz­ian main­tain that the vac­cine is a West­ern plot to turn peo­ple gay—a con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry wide­ly report­ed in the anti-Iran­ian Arab press. Oth­er false­hoods, which don’t make the news but are repeat­ed reg­u­lar­ly behind the walls of the city’s high­ris­es, say that any vac­cine admin­is­trat­ed by the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment would be water any­way. Or that the Pfiz­er-BioN­Tech and Oxford-AstraZeneca sup­plies, sent to the coun­try by U.S. and U.K. gov­ern­ments and reject­ed out­right by the coun­try’s spir­i­tu­al leader Aya­tol­lah Khamenei, were con­fis­cat­ed by the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards.

“Polit­i­cal cul­ture remains ‘near-patho­log­i­cal­ly pre­oc­cu­pied with rein­forc­ing its legit­i­ma­cy and man­u­fac­tur­ing or forc­ing the appear­ance of domes­tic con­sent.’ And this has made telling the truth about the life and death con­se­quences of the virus all the more chal­leng­ing, to say the least.”

The pan­dem­ic has been dif­fi­cult for coun­tries around the world. How­ev­er, in Iran, reli­gion has not been the only fac­tor that com­pli­cates mat­ters. Accord­ing to Iran­Wire’s report, Only the Trench­es Have Changed: Health Pol­i­cy and Prac­tice in Iran dur­ing Covid-19, polit­i­cal cul­ture remains “near-patho­log­i­cal­ly pre­oc­cu­pied with rein­forc­ing its legit­i­ma­cy and man­u­fac­tur­ing or forc­ing the appear­ance of domes­tic con­sent.” And this has made telling the truth about the life and death con­se­quences of the virus all the more chal­leng­ing, to say the least.

Now a graph­ic nov­el joins Iran­Wire’s on-going, in-depth report­ing about the pan­dem­ic, from offi­cial reports and state­ments by pub­lic offi­cials to short films and doc­u­men­tary and anec­do­tal evi­dence, some 300,000 words in Per­sian and Eng­lish since last year.

The Crash, Covid-19 and Oth­er Iran­ian Sto­ries by Mana Neyestani tells the sto­ry of four seem­ing­ly uncon­nect­ed fic­tion­al lives that become inter­twined due to the virus: a writer; a reli­gious teacher in Qom; an inves­tiga­tive reporter and a nurse in a hos­pi­tal inten­sive care ward. The graph­ic nov­el takes place against the back­drop of for­got­ten news events from last year that upend­ed Iran­ian soci­ety and con­tin­ue to do so today.

Neyestani, an edi­to­r­i­al car­toon­ist, is well aware of the restric­tive nature of telling a sto­ry in a sin­gle draw­ing. In the inter­view, which accom­pa­nies the free down­load of The Crash, he says, “In a car­toon, we have to intro­duce all the char­ac­ters in one frame: both the killer and the vic­tim … There isn’t enough time for in-depth characterization.” 

Neyestani, jailed in Evin prison in 2006 for an edi­to­r­i­al car­toon, recount­ed his expe­ri­ences in the graph­ic nov­el, An Iran­ian Meta­mor­pho­sis that was writ­ten and pub­lished, in 2014, after he went into exile in France.

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Feel­ings of Col­lec­tive Exhaustion

Many Iran­ian graph­ic nov­els, includ­ing the ground­break­ing Mar­jane Satrapi’s Perse­po­lis, grap­ple with that piv­otal moment in Iran­ian his­to­ry when the coun­try turned from a sec­u­lar to a reli­gious soci­ety. The Crash is also root­ed in a tur­bu­lent past, the fol­low­ing 40 gru­el­ing years, which pro­vides the emo­tion­al tenor of Neyestani’s story.

The car­toon­ist explains, “Until 20 years ago, I think many Ira­ni­ans believed pos­i­tive change and reform could take place. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the gov­ern­ment was ruth­less and did­n’t take one step toward meet­ing their demands. In the waves of protest that have tak­en place … in 1999, 2009, 2018 and 2019, we see frus­tra­tion and anger. Each time they are con­front­ed with a ham­mer-blow of repres­sion and suf­fo­ca­tion by the gov­ern­ment, and the win­dows of hope are closed. This has cre­at­ed a feel­ing of col­lec­tive exhaus­tion.” A longer inter­view, edit­ed into twelve, approx­i­mate­ly two-minute seg­ments, can also be seen on YouTube.

The Crash begins with the despair­ing writer’s con­tin­u­ing night­mares of the Jan­u­ary 8, 2020 shoot­ing down of Inter­na­tion­al Air­lines Flight 752, in which 82 Ira­ni­ans and 63 Cana­di­ans lost their lives. It was a revenge attack by the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards that went wrong, after the U.S. assas­si­na­tion of Gen­er­al Qassem Soleimani in Iraq five days before.

The writer, who lost his grown daugh­ter Hengameh on the flight, can bare­ly watch the evening news about the upcom­ing par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, which has tak­en prece­dence over a dead­ly virus com­ing from Chi­na. In real­i­ty, Neyestani’s broth­er, the polit­i­cal car­toon­ist Tou­ka Neyestani, lost his fiancé who also died in the plane crash.

On the oppo­site end of the polit­i­cal spec­trum in the sto­ry is a reli­gious teacher from Qom, who believes the Islam­ic way of life for his lit­tle daugh­ter, Fate­meh, is under threat, and that any crit­i­cism of “our noble guards” is a con­spir­a­cy by the Israelis and Saud­is. The inter­nal dia­logue is the nov­el­’s most pow­er­ful device. It is some­thing all four char­ac­ters share, despite their obvi­ous differences—a pri­vate refuge they must resort to when the out­side world of a total­i­tar­i­an sys­tem is full of lies, role-play­ing and fear-mon­ger­ing. Despite news of the virus, the reli­gious teacher joins thou­sands of oth­ers, in long queues and crowd­ed rooms to vote, with no social dis­tanc­ing or masks in the coun­try’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions on Feb­ru­ary 21.

These elec­tions were in fact the sec­ond of two real-life “super­spread­er” events that took place in Iran last year. The first were the ral­lies and march­es com­mem­o­rat­ing the 41st anniver­sary of the Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. By the time 34 mil­lion Ira­ni­ans went to the polls to vote two weeks lat­er, regime offi­cials who had been vocif­er­ous in deny­ing the dan­ger and spread of the virus were get­ting sick, in public.

Read­ing State Media

The jour­nal­ist in the graph­ic nov­el, Saeed Madai, is intro­duced as an astute read­er of state media. Sit­ting at his desk at home, he is ana­lyz­ing a news­pa­per pho­to­graph, which shows the tra­di­tion­al “Meet­ing of the Exalt­ed Leader.”

Despite Khamenei’s dis­missal of the virus as “rumor-mon­ger­ing,” his fol­low­ers were not allowed to kiss his hand or throng around him, as they would nor­mal­ly do on such occa­sions. Madai draws a line to note the enforced dis­tance between the supreme leader on his throne and his fol­low­ers on their knees. Out­raged, the jour­nal­ist can no longer stay silent and live-streams on Insta­gram, dur­ing which he details the lies of the regime, the fail­ure to stop flights to and from Chi­na, as well as the denial of the ris­ing num­bers of those treat­ed and dying in hospital.

For the char­ac­ter of Madai, Neyestani had been inspired by jour­nal­ists who have run afoul of the Iran­ian author­i­ties: Moham­mad Mossaed, who was jailed in 2019, for a tweet; and Mah­moud Shahri­ari, a tele­vi­sion pre­sen­ter arrest­ed in April last year, after he spoke about gov­ern­ment cov­er-up and spread of the coro­n­avirus, charges he too had broad­cast from his home via Instagram.

In the com­ic, after First Deputy Health Min­is­ter Iraj Harirchi ridicules the idea of quar­an­tines as “belong­ing to the medieval era,” jour­nal­ist Madai exclaims: “Quar­an­tine is ‘Medieval?’ In our coun­try we exe­cute and flog pris­on­ers in pub­lic and cut off the fin­gers of thieves.”

There were more lies to come from the reli­gious estab­lish­ment, which sug­gest­ed Qur’an­ic prayers and pil­grim­ages dur­ing Ashu­ra, even the injec­tion of vio­let oil into the anus, could pre­vent coronavirus.

Inter­est­ing­ly, Neyestani notes that it was only when the num­ber of deaths start­ed ris­ing in Amer­i­ca did the Iran­ian offi­cials admit to increased death tolls, as though Iran always has to be in com­pe­ti­tion with the Great Satan.  Mean­while his draw­ings of mul­lahs and the virus with its char­ac­ter­is­tic spikes embed­ded in their tur­bans bounce across the page.

Divide & Rule

In the graph­ic nov­el, the fourth char­ac­ter that read­ers meet is the inten­sive care nurse, who cap­tures the real tragedy of Iran. Moj­gan watch­es Madai’s live broad­cast on Insta­gram, and won­ders why he is even allowed to broad­cast. If he is per­mit­ted to by the regime, noth­ing he says can be trust­ed despite the fact he presents him­self as a dis­si­dent voice.

With nurse Moj­gan, Neyestani iden­ti­fies one of the suc­cess­es of author­i­tar­i­an regimes in spread­ing sus­pi­cion, and using “divide and rule” tac­tics so that peo­ple end up not giv­ing cre­dence to those who are “on their side.”

How­ev­er, Moj­gan does­n’t have the time to sit around her bed­room, smoke cig­a­rettes and wor­ry; she has to get ready for work. At her hos­pi­tal dur­ing the ear­ly days of the virus, one of the doc­tors told her not to wear a mask because it “scares” patients. As a result doc­tors and nurs­es have died. Moj­gan is fright­ened of catch­ing the dis­ease, and dreams of leav­ing the coun­try. Her sto­ry reflects the true to life sit­u­a­tion for many Iran­ian health pro­fes­sion­als who hope to emi­grate abroad. Some nurs­es, in groups, have already left.

The sto­ry comes full cir­cle, when the virus ignores class or polit­i­cal per­sua­sion, and Moj­gan’s dying patients include, iron­i­cal­ly, two polar oppo­sites of Iran­ian soci­ety, now lying side-by-side in their hos­pi­tal beds: the writer and the reli­gious teacher. At the end of a har­row­ing shift, she sees from a phone alert that the jour­nal­ist Madai had been arrest­ed. So he was­n’t a regime lack­ey after all.

The graph­ic nov­el ends with the mourn­ing cer­e­monies in the Imam Khome­i­ni Prayer Hall, not for the thou­sands of Ira­ni­ans who died from the Covid-19 but for the 40th day of Imam Hos­sein’s mar­tyr­dom from over 1,400 years ago.

Pow­er­ful and thought pro­vok­ing, The Crash lays bare the hypocrisy of the regime. Yet, satire alone will not insure the regime’s down­fall. Despite this, artists and jour­nal­ists under great per­son­al dan­ger to them­selves remain com­mit­ted in speak­ing truth to pow­er. In the mean­time, ordi­nary Ira­ni­ans “crushed under the pres­sure of pover­ty, infla­tion, sanc­tions and a thou­sand oth­er mis­eries … learned to wear masks in order to sur­vive … Every­one has anoth­er mask” – even under the ones they wear as pro­tec­tion against the virus.


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Malu Halasa is a London-based writer and editor. Her six co-edited anthologies include—Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, with Zaher Omareen; The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design, with Rana Salam; and the short series: Transit Beirut, with Rosanne Khalaf, and Transit Tehran, with Maziar Bahari. She was managing editor of the Prince Claus Fund Library; a founding editor of Tank Magazine and Editor at Large for Portal 9. As a former freelance journalist in the London, she covered wide-ranging subjects, from water as occupation in Israel/Palestine to Syrian comics during the present-day conflict. Her books, exhibitions and lectures chart a changing Middle East. Malu Halasa’s debut novel, Mother of All Pigs was reviewed by the New York Times as “a microcosmic portrait of … a patriarchal order in slow-motion decline.”


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