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Mana Neyestani: The Kafkaesque World Of An Iranian Cartoonist

Iranian Mana Neyestani, shown here in one of his works, now lives in exile in France.
Iranian Mana Neyestani, shown here in one of his works, now lives in exile in France.
By Golnaz Esfandiari
A cockroach landed Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani in jail and turned his life upside down.

In 2006, a cartoon by Neyestani that showed the pest speaking Azeri sparked riots among Iran's minority Azeris. The cartoon, which ran in the children's section of the state newspaper, "Iran," showed a cockroach asking, "What?" in Azeri. It was deemed insulting by many members of Iran's Azeri minority, who took to the streets to show their anger.

The government responded with force. Nineteen people reportedly died in the clashes and many others were arrested.

Neyestani and the editor of the paper ended up in solitary confinement in Tehran's Evin prison under conditions the cartoonist described as "Kafkaesque." Three months later, Neyestani used a temporary prison leave to flee the country with his wife. He finally ended up in exile in France after spending time in several other countries, including Turkey, Malaysia, and China.

Now, the 39-year-old cartoonist has recounted his time in prison in a graphic novel titled "An Iranian Metamorphosis," which was recently published in France. The book, whose title is a reference to Franz Kafka's famous story about a man who turns into a giant insect and is ostracized by his family, is also due to be published in other European countries and possibly in the United States.

In the novel, Neyestani's time in jail -- including the psychological torture he faced and numerous interrogations where he was purportedly asked to confess to having received money from foreigners and other fabricated charges -- is depicted in powerful black-and-white illustrations with his signature dark humor and, of course, many cockroaches.

In one scene, he tells his interrogator he decided to use the word "Namana" -- which is "what" in Azeri -- because many Iranians use it while speaking Farsi.

"I didn't have its Azeri origins in mind," he says.

The interrogator tells Neyestani that he's unconvincing and asks him to think of better motives, as well as to provide "all the information he has about his fellow cartoonists."

An architect by training, the real-life Neyestani says he decided to produce the book to illustrate the difficult and often absurd, tragicomic situation intellectuals in Iran face.

Running Commentary

To many Iranians, Neyestani is known as the creator of a comic strip called "The Engaged Family," which for the last two years has documented the life of a middle-class Iranian family. The family supports the opposition Green Movement and Neyestani chronicles their interactions with "the dictator."

The strip, which is published on a Persian news website based abroad, has gained enormous popularity for the way it shows how humor can help people cope with the painful realities of life in Iran.

A recent installment of "The Engaged Family" reflected the anger many members of the opposition felt after they heard the news that former President Mohammad Khatami had voted in the March parliamentary elections, which other reformists boycotted.

In the cartoon, the grandfather of the family has broken a mirror over a dazed-looking Khatami, who is standing next to a ballot box covered with bloody handprints.

PHOTO GALLERY: Some of Neyestani's works:

  • Mana Neyestani during a presentation at the Sixteenth International Festival of Literature and Freedom of Expression in Southern Norway
  • "Khatami's Vote"
  • The main character of his series "The Engaged Family" (“Dargir Family”) (image courtesy of Mardomak.org)
  • Mana Neyestani in an adapted version of one of his works for his Facebook page.
  • "Syria Crackdown"
  • "Repression"
  • "Peace"
  • "No War"
  • "His God"
  • "Come Out"

Neyestani's cartoons pulse with feelings of hope, lack of freedom, and frustration with the absurd social and political rules that Iranians face in their day-to-day lives. His drawings depict Iranian leaders as obsessed with nuclear power, show how sanctions hurt ordinary people, evoke the specter of war with Israel, highlight the plight of political prisoners, and, in general, draw attention to vexing issues on the minds of many Iranians.

Portraying Peace

Another recent cartoon was inspired by the "Israel Loves Iran" antiwar campaign. It went viral in late March after Neyestani posted it on his Facebook page.

The drawing shows two podiums facing each other, one with the flag of Iran and the other with the flag of Israel. Two men -- appearing to represent the leaders of the two countries -- are yelling at each other with words depicted in the shape of bombs. Underneath the men, outstretched hands are rising out of the podiums and exchanging red roses with each other.

The powerful imagery reflects how Neyestani feels about the idea of military conflict over Iran's nuclear activities.

"I think the majority of Iranians share this concern," he tells RFE/RL. "It's a serious threat and worry. We hear about it on a daily basis in the news. For me, it is a constant nightmare because I believe it might have very bad consequences."

'Iran's Modern History'

Columbia University professor and author Hamid Dabashi says Neyestani's work is so powerful because of the artist's "organic relation" to his homeland.

"I consider [Neyestani's] work as the illustrated memory of our time, the wide-awake conscience of our time," Dabashi says. "[Neyestani] is watching Iran's history closely with his creative imagination -- he's [producing] the illustrated satire of our time. When you look at his work, it is as if you were listing Iran's modern history day by day."

Such high praise is not uncommon. But the accolades and acclaim don't appear to have gone to Neyestani's head.

"The only thing I've done is to try to remain faithful to my beliefs and to be honest to myself," Neyestani says.

While Iran's leadership continues its negotiating dance with the international community -– a new round of talks is set to start in Istanbul on April 14 -- Neyestani plans to continue drawing cartoons. It's the best way he says he's found to express his views and make a living at the same time.
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Elshan from: London
April 10, 2012 18:27
Neyestani's version of a cockroach speaking Azeri is an over simplified and watered-down version the insulting story. The piece in Iran was very offensive to Azeris and it caused a lot of problems and pain. It shows Neyestani naivety and irrespective of the regime in power in Iran, he would have been treated badly. You cannot insult your own fellow country men and women so badly and get away with it in name of freedom of the press.

by: an Iranian from: Here and there
April 10, 2012 19:32
Many non-Azeri Iranians use the word "Namana", there is nothing offensive about it. The cartoon gave the Azeris an excuse to protest against the alleged discrimination they face in Iran.

by: Nemesida
April 11, 2012 00:01
It was not just a cockroach. The text accompanying the cartoon suggested twenty ways of getting rid of cockroaches. One can say post-factum, that he didn't mean it. But he did! And that is in line with government policy.
In Iran TV channels present results of surveys where people answer the question "would you like your neighbor to be turk (Azeri)" (any suggestions on why would government ask this question in nationwide survey?)
It is very unfortunate that a journalist is being jailed for something he writes, cartoonist for something he draws. But suggesting to get rid of ethnic group cannot be considered an art and this is not something you want to be associated with. Hopefully this story didn't mean to whitewash the racist cartoonist.
In Response

by: Emil from: Baku
April 11, 2012 08:12
The story intentionally does not mean to whitewash, becuase the author of the piece has not simply done her research ! Repeating whatever the interviewee says without delving into the depth of the story and the real reasons for Neyestani's arrest is not professional.

by: Sey from: World
April 11, 2012 05:43
What do Azeries even protests in Iran? They considered themselves Turks, then go to Turkey, or any of the other five Turkic republics around the corner.

Whenever I hear of "Azeries [Turks] being repressed in Iran", I remember the words of Mahmudali Chehregani, and I believe Iran could not be more righteous in keeping them at large.

And if any of the "repression" Azeries "suffer" in Iran is true, then I would say it is payback. Kurds are repressed in Turkey, then i would expect no other thing than Turks going through the same in other countries.
In Response

by: Shirazi from: Iran
April 11, 2012 08:25
What do you mean Azeris should go to Turkey ? You seem to have no idea of Iran and its ethnic configuration. Iran is made up of various ethnic groups and - in an ideal situation which we do not have - all of them should enjoy their ethnic and national rights. do try to educate yourself about Iran.
In Response

by: Sey from: World
April 11, 2012 16:50
The majority of Iran's ethnic groups are Iranic ethnic groups, say Persians, Kurds, Lurs, Gilakis, etc. I know Azeries are Iranic too, but they've been brainwashed to believe their Turks.

I'm just saying if they love their Turkishness so much, then go to Turkey or Azerbaijan, stop wanting to dismember Iran. Have you read Chehregani? I recommend you to do, I enjoy this quote myself:

"There are 500,000 Kurdish immigrants in Southern Azerbaijan. If they behave normally, there will be no problems, otherwise they will have to leave the same way as they came".

Can you imagine a Turk telling a Kurd (Iranic ethnic group) they will be expulsed from ancestral Iranian land? I also enjoyed the time he called Persians "dogs" on Turkish TV. And he seems to be pretty popular amongst "Azeri Turks".

by: Maryam
April 11, 2012 15:12
This is a great profile of Neyestani, not a piece about why Azeris feel they face discrimination in Iran. I think their protests wasn't over a cartoon, it goes much deeper than that.

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