Zahra's Paradise

Zahra's Paradise

From the opening panels of this wrenching tale, it is apparent this is no ordinary graphic novel. A few panels tell a brief tale of a young boy's father brutally drowning a new litter of pups (except for the one the boy hides), which serves as an introductory allegory for this story. The artwork throughout this graphic novel is reminiscent of Art Speigelman's Maus and effectively conveys the hope and horror of the time and place.

This story is set in Iran from June to August 2009 during and immediately after the election of Ahmadinejad, and the protests that followed in Freedom Square. A young man tells his story through his blog: his mother has heard about the shootings, arrests, and beatings of the protesters, but doesn't imagine her youngest son and the blogger's bother, Mehdi, could be involved. He is studying for his tests, after all. But when he doesn't return home for dinner, she and her eldest son set out on a long, convoluted journey to discover his fate. His determined mother will not give up her search for him as they navigate the circuitous paths of government bureaucracy, traffic jams, and bewildering protocols, discovering first hand the deceit and cruelty of this regime. Zahra's Paradise is the name not only of a cemetery outside Tehran, but also of Mehdi's mother. Her righteous fury will move you to your soul.

Don't overlook the information at the end: a glossary, an explanation of the 2009 presidential election, and especially the Omid Memorial Project, which lists the names, full or partial, of the victims of executions, assassinations, or disappearances since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The author and the illustrator use only their first names for fear of reprisal from the government. Read this book to get an insider's perspective on Iran's troubles, but also for a look at Iran's citizens who don't make the news, but whose courage and humanity help keep the hope of freedom alive.

Written and illustrated by two men who, for political reasons, use only their first names, the story covers the time between June and August 2009. This graphic novel is an important book, but not recommended for young or middle readers. The subject matter is real, if the story is not. The author and illustrator pull no punches.

Recommended by Jane Behrens, Librarian, Iowa, USA


Iran, summer 2009 – students protest against rigged elections, and Alavi’s brother doesn’t come home. It makes no sense; Mehdi was studying for his final exams so he wasn’t out partying. As Alavi and his mother search Tehran’s hospitals in this graphic novel, their despair deepens – is Mehdi one the many who have disappeared into Evin Prison, that horror of abuse and degradation?

Alavi prints up missing person posters with Mehdi’s picture, meeting a sympathetic copy shop owner near the university and a beautiful woman who reminds him of well-respected Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi. In 2003, Zahra was taken into Evin Prison for questioning and came out in a coffin. Chief Justice Mortazavi said she had tripped; an autopsy showed that she had been tortured and raped.

Swirling connections of corrupt officials and powerful politicians continue to block every avenue that the Alavis pursue in search of Mehdi. The few people who dare to help them are well aware of the risks involved, but what decent person wants another dead son dumped into an unmarked grave in Lot 309? Ah, Zahra’s Paradise, the cemetery named for the wife of the Prophet, has a growing hidden section that no one publicly mentions.

This intense graphic novel about struggle, power, and loss is a brutal testimony to the thousands of Iranians who asked for free elections and were silenced. The closing pages of the book contain their names, page after page in the smallest readable font, as part of the Omid Memorial, so that they may not be forgotten, even though their final resting places be unknown. It is no wonder that the author and artist published this compelling story using only fictitious first names. For very mature readers only.

Recommended by: Katy Manck, Librarian-at-Large (retired academic/corporate/school librarian), Gilmer, Texas, USA

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