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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.
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:

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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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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