Zahra’s Paradise

Cover of Zahra's Paradise, dshowing a cartoon hand reaching up and recording an unseen scene on a cell phoneZahra’s Paradise
Amir and Khalil

This graphic novel focuses on one family’s search for a missing son during the Iran’s 2009 election protests. The setting is a bit intimidating at first – who are all these people the author is talking about? – but I just decided to roll with it and it was fine. Admittedly, I listen to npr most mornings, so I have a passing familiarity with a lot of major world events, but I am certainly no expert on Iran.

The story is compelling, the real life events horrifying, the artwork beautiful. I was struck by many of the images, especially a silhouette of Mehdi made of the flyers declaring him missing. The artists also eloquently show the many, many, practicing Muslims who abhor violence, and put their faith in their religion to bring them out of a crisis brought in the name of that very religion.

What kept me from giving it five stars was the male gaze-y aspects. The two main characters are Zahra, mother of the missing Mehdi, and Mehdi’s brother, Hassan. Zahra does join Hassan on some of the attempts to locate Mehdi, but I got the distinct feeling that Hassan was the primary actor. Zahra waited at home for news.

This causes Zahra to be a flat, mostly static character. She does not change, except in the intensity of her grief and worry. We don’t learn about her other than as a mother worried about her missing child. While Hassan is also consumed with finding Mehdi, the reader learns gets a sense of who he is as the novel progresses. He and his brother have a substantial circle of friends both in meatspace and online. Hassan knows how to leverage his connections to get the information he needs. He acts on that information. He takes risks. He suffers consequences. He likes pretty girls. He seems to get jealous when one tells him of her sexual exploits with another man, even though he barely knows her.

At the climax, when Zahra claims the stage, it feels false somehow. I do not doubt that a woman in her position might very well have the thoughts that she does, but their expression does not feel like a natural fit for her character. Although the title if Zahra’s paradise, this book seems like a story put on her, rather than a story of her.

I wish I’d felt like I knew her character more before the last few pages. She’s certainly an interesting woman.

Interestingly, this book was first published as a serial webcomic, where it was simultaneously translated into multiple languages (but not Farsi). Now there are excerpts online, but the full text is only available in print.

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