Zahra’s Paradise is a somber, serious and political work. A vivid account of the aftermath of Iran’s ‘stolen’ elections of 2009, it details the search for a fictional character, Mehdi, who goes missing in the street protests which happen in the wake of the election results. Mehdi may be a fictional character, but there is no doubt it is meant as a composite of several such missing or dead student protesters who were crushed mercilessly by the supposed guardians of religion and state.
Mehdi may also have been one of the faceless who went missing, but for his mother and his brother, a blogger. His mother’s ferocious will and love for her child will brook no withering of resolve, as she and Hassan (Mehdi’s brother) sift through the wreckage of a country at war with its own future in search of Mehdi. Their search takes them to the gates of the notorious prisons of Evin and Kahrizak , to uncaring bureaucrats and to a dreaded cemetery, where the dead may have been dumped. This cemetery is the titular Zahra’s Paradise and it may hold many such heart rending stories of dreams snuffed out young. Through all this, there are telling indictments of officials and religious authorities getting rich and feeding off the souls of those they flatten.
The art is interesting and tells the story in black and white, but the chapters did not seem at times to come together with a continuity, which made it a little less gripping than it should have been. And at times, the sensational nature of events shown, while maybe true, appeared more fictional than should be of an attempted documentation of real events. The villains were mostly shown as caricatures and the characterizations in these cases were a little flat. However, there were some good depictions of normal Iranians who empathize with the mother and despair at what their country has come to.
It’s a sad portrait of what happens when religion and politics coincide, and how institutions that are supposed to denote morality and concern change into despotic tyrants when their power is threatened. There are some haunting sections in the epilogue, none more than a continuous stream of names of Iranians dead or missing on account of the regimes since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. That goes on for 14 pages and more than 16000 names. Harrowing.