A Persian Cartoonist Illustrated His Fall from Grace in His New Graphic Novel

One day Mana Neyestani woke up and found himself a criminal and a racist—a once-respected artist turned into a prisoner, then a fugitive, then a refugee.

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Dec 12 2014, 5:00pm

Courtesy of Uncivilized Books. Some translations from Farsi by Leila Mouri.

Mana Neyestani is a Persian illustrator and political commentator who was jailed  by Iranian authorities after publishing a children's comic strip in an entertainment magazine calledIran Jomeh in 2006. In the strip, a cockroach shares a scene with a child. "The cockroach was talking to the child," Neyestani explained to me, "in a fake language that I called 'Cockroach language.' But the cockroach did not understand the boy. So it responded 'Namanaa?' which means 'what?' in Azeri. Originally, this word came from the Iranian ethnic group that we call Azeri. Unfortunately, they considered this cartoon to be an insult."

Insult is an understatement. Azeris are the largest ethnic minority in Iran, and the cartoon led to major unrest throughout the country. When street demonstrations grew too large, the Iranian authorities shot and killed several protesters in the cities of Tabriz, Zanjan, and Ardebil. What should have been a short detention for Neyestani—or no detention at all, because he had not broken a law—suddenly grew longer and longer as he was increasingly blamed for the killings.

Neyestani's new graphic novel,   An Iranian Metamorphosis, is an autobiographical story that depicts his ensuing fall from grace as a popular cartoonist to a national pariah forced to flee his home country.

Ethnic minorities are often disparaged by being called vermin or insects—take the Rwandan genocide, for instance, when "cockroach" was a commonly used term on the radio—so I pressed Neyestani on this point. "I can promise you and swear from the bottom of my heart," he replied, "that I did not intend to offend anyone. I did not think about the origin of the word and it was misinterpreted." In his book, the cockroach cartoon serves as a vehicle for the Azeri to express long pent-up frustrations about economic and social marginalization. Neyestani becomes a victim of larger political struggles, and he realizes this first-hand when an Azeri protester is temporarily thrown into his cell. Instead of fighting, they amicably share books and talk politics.

Neyestani wrote the book in just ten months, while he was stranded in Malaysia with his wife seeking asylum. The title,  An Iranian Metamorphosis, can be misleading, because in many ways the novel is much closer to Kafka's The Trial, where the protagonist Josef K. learns that he is going to be tried for an unknown offense, and is forced to navigate a labyrinthine government administration just to muster his own feeble defense. "I agree that it's more like The Trial than the Metamorphosis," he admitted. "But, it is the identity crisis. Gregor Samsa wakes up one day in Metamorphosis and finds himself a cockroach. Me too. One day I woke up and found myself a criminal. I was a racist. I changed from being a respected artist to a prisoner, and then to a fugitive, and then a refugee. I tried hard to keep my identity as a human being. As an intellectual, a free man."

Political cartoonists have gained new power in the age of the internet. A witty image can quickly be passed around on Facebook or Twitter to millions of people, provoking the ire of authorities. At the same time, the creators themselves are more accessible than ever, and can be attacked by trolls or hate speech. Today, Neyestani ekes out a living by drawing editorial cartoons for websites outside Iran, and he has an enormous following both inside and outside the country.

For those illustrators still working inside the country, the rules have changed. Western media is trumpeting President Hassan Rouhani as a welcome moderate, but he has not managed to open space for human rights and free expression as people had hoped. "It is not easy to criticize the government directly," Neyestani told me, "so using a metaphor is a common technique to avoid getting into trouble." But that has changed in recent years. Many of his cartoonist friends have stopped drawing for newspapers, finding it too risky. "Even if they use metaphors, they cannot speak as directly as possible because there is the risk of a misunderstanding by the government and the audience." Instead, many now work as animators or leave the country.

There has not been a national reconciliation, as it were, with the underlying injustice and brutality that forced Neyestani to flee. President Hassan Rouhani is busy negotiating over centrifuges and enriched uranium, but creative artists in Iran are not free to express themselves. Last year, 11 writers and bloggers in Iran were imprisoned for using social media, and recent reports from human rights groups suggest that 2014 will be much worse. "I still receive angry letters from some Azeri people each May, which is the anniversary of the massacres. They still think I'm guilty and they blame me." But the cartoonist is glad he told his story. "The book helped me to get rid of some disturbing images in my head, some pictures, some bad experiences."

Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of Nigerians in Space, a novel out now from Unnamed Press. He is an attorney who fights for digital rights worldwide with the organization Access. Follow him on Twitter.

Read the first chapter of 

An Iranian Metamorphosis below.