Nonfiction – print. Translated from the French by Ghazal Mosadeq. Uncivilized Books, 2014. Originally published 2012. 160 pgs. Library copy.
A cartoonist for a newspaper geared towards children in Iran, Neyestani drew a cartoon featuring a cockroach speaking an Azeri word – which is used to mean “what?” in Iranian Persian – in 2006 and ended up in one of Iran’s notorious secret jails. Such a sentence seems surprisingly harsh, but the Iranian government charged Neyestani with working against the state after the Azerbaijani minority rioted over the image and needed to demonstrate they are doing something to appease the concerns of the minority group.
While Neyestani escapes the horrendous torture associated with Iran’s prison system (which he rather tongue-in-cheek admits would have made for a more interesting story), he is detained indefinitely and temporary placed in solitary confinement. The lawyer hired to represent him by the newspaper is both unwilling to go up against the Iranian judicial system (if you can call it that) and subservient to the newspaper owner’s interest – utterly prepared to use Neyestani as a scapegoat to save their own hides.
Unexpectedly and temporarily released, Neyestani and his wife made plans to flee from Iran hoping they would be granted asylum on freedom of the press grounds by a European embassy or a country in North America. Yet each embassy rejected their application citing a lack of publicity around Neyestani’s case and, fearing a return to Iran would mean certain jail time or death at the hands of the Azerbaijani minority, Neyestani and his wife hired a smuggler to move them through Dubai, Turkey, Malaysia and China to freedom in France throwing them both into the uncertain and treacherous life of illegal migrants.
The story ultimately presented in this graphic memoir was not at all the one I expected when I selected the book off the shelf, but I found the story of illegal migration to be particularly poignant given recent events. If there is anyone you would expect to qualify for asylum, it would be Neyestani and yet doors – both legal and illegal – were repeatedly closed to him and his wife.
Neyestani’s hostility towards himself because of the role his seemingly innocent art played in their displacement was well-captured in how often he tries to squash the cockroach. But he does not devote very many panels to how life in asylum limbo affected his relationship with his wife, Mansoureh, which I thought was a rather odd choice. Whether this was because he wanted to protect her privacy or because he felt the memoir should focus solely on him, I cannot say. But for someone who is presented as taking an active role in their escape, she does appear very much so as a secondary or even tertiary character.
However, I did particularly like how he presented the idiocy of the Iranian prison system, which transferred him and a coworker under false names and stories out of the worst of the prison’s divisions to prevent them from being targeted by Azerbaijanis in jail. Forgetting – by choice or by stupidity – how the courtyard of the minimum security division looks right at the entrance to the other division so everyone already knew who they were. And, overall, the memoir offers a window into a world really only referenced rather than explored by the news media.
The comics, themselves, are black and white drawings in nature without very many hidden stories within each panel other than the cockroach occasionally lurking in the background. It reminded me a bit of Zeina Abirached and Marjane Satrapi’s style so now I’m wondering if this a common style for cartoonists from this region of the world.