Mana Neyestani was already an acclaimed cartoonist in Iran when he drew a comic that set off riots in the country. The cartoon in question was part of a regular feature he drew for the children’s section of “Iran-Jomeh.” In the aftermath, Neyestani and his editor were jailed and later, both fled the country. Now living in France, Neyestani contributes cartoons to Iranian opposition websites and he has written and drawn the graphic memoir An Iranian Metamorphosis, which has just been published in the United States by Uncivilized Books. The book details his Kafka-esque experiences in jail, and his struggle to leave the country–which is nearly as Kafka-esque–and the drawing of the cockroach that started it all.
Alex Dueben: As a first question, could just talk a little about your life before An Iranian Metamorphosis begins? Were you always interested in becoming a cartoonist and artist? What kinds of work were you drawing?
Mana Neyestani: I began to draw when I was three or four years old. My father was a poet (he died when I was nine) and my eldest brother Touka was (still is) a cartoonist and drawer as well so I can say that our house had a cultural ambiance. Touka had a lot of visual books including cartoons and caricatures albums and comic books. He always encouraged me to draw and gathered my childhood paintings. Later when I finished high school I decided to go to the university and study architecture engineering because it was like a mixture of art and engineering which is more profitable than pure art majors in Iran. I got my MA in architecture engineering in 2007 but I have never worked as an architect. I started to work as a drawer and cartoonist in magazines since I was 16 in high school, continued it during my study in university and gradually it became my first job. I was working mostly for opposition and reformist magazines and newspapers. Also I did comics for children in some kid magazines.
What is the role of cartoonists in Iran? Do people pay a lot of attention to comics and cartoons?
You know that editorial cartoons depends on the media, and the media in Iran are strictly controlled and censored therefore it is not easy to find a place to present your work as a cartoonist. Also there is no tradition of comic books in Iran for some reasons: it is a risky job for publishers to invest on comics. Books need to get kind of license or permission from ministry of culture to be published and they might be rejected due to their sexual or political or social point of view. As a comic artist you need to spend a huge time for a book and get almost nothing financially. Anyway, people like cartoons if they can access them.
Your character, Soheil. Was this a continuing comic strip that appeared in the newspaper? What was it like, was it just a comic for children and not political?
Actually Soheil (and her sister Sara) were the characters of the magazine which I created for the kids section. I preferred to present stories, articles and interviews through their mouths. Applying childish language helps the audience for a better communication, I think. I did it almost two years and it was not political at all.
What exactly was this cartoon you drew that sparked rioting and destruction?
It was an illustration, one of seven or eight I drew for a humorous text, which I wrote as well. Each issue I chose a main theme, then we put a humorous text or fake interview on the first page, some scientific articles on the third page and some games and puzzles on page 4–all related to the main theme. That issue was about cockroaches. As always you could see some scientific text and entertaining puzzles also cartoons about it on different pages. The first page, I put a humorous text titled "How to defeat cockroaches" including eight or nine funny methods to get rid of them. The first method was “make dialogue with cockroaches.” I suggested that we can try to have conversations with cockroaches in cockroach language, but due to the fact that it’s a difficult language, they would prefer other languages. For this caption, I drew Soheil trying to make a conversation with a beetle in cockroach language but the small insect did not understand and responded: “Namana?” which means “What?” The problem was that the word “namana” originally belongs to the “Azeri” ethnic of Iran and some of them, took it as a racist joke about them which depicted them as cockroach. Also they were–and still are–angry with the discriminative laws [against them]; therefore the cartoon became a pretext for them to go to streets and protest against the regime.
As you mentioned, the media is controlled in Iran, but you were drawing cartoons and illustrations for a kids' section. I’m sure you were aware of the censorship and oversight, but had you encountered it before with your own work? I’m curious just how often the media will publish something and the government cracks down and is the government always so forceful in responding to what’s been published?
Although I love working for children, I was basically an editorial cartoonist who had no choice but to work for children’s magazines after 2000, because almost all the reformist and opposition press had been banned in 2000 by the Supreme Leader’s direct order. I had done editorial cartoons and I even published an album of my political cartoons around 2000 titled To Laugh Is Not Forbidden. Even the time when I was working for kid magazines I never quit editorial cartoons completely, and gave them to some of the remaining newspapers frequently. Normally the editors were responsible for the censors and try to avoid cartoons and articles crossing the red lines and making trouble for the newspaper or magazines. Also we were careful ourselves. Most of the time we used metaphors to criticize the system indirectly or avoided implying some taboos like religion and sex, nevertheless sometimes we faced some troubles.
For example once some anti-militarist works of mine were sued by the Iranian police, but the press court found them clear of charge. But you know, using cartoons and articles as a pretext to ban a magazine or newspaper has become a common thing–especially since 1998 when so many reformist press were founded and the judiciary system began to find ways to suppress them. Whenever they ban a newspaper because of an article or cartoon, they arrest the cartoonist or journalist as well.
Has there long been tension within Iran from people of Azerbaijani descent? Or tension between Iran and Azerbaijan?
Unfortunately in Iran there is a culture of making humiliating jokes for the ethnicities–especially for Azeris. Also the authorities have always made problems for them, suppressed them, made discriminative laws, will not let them study their own languages in schools. Most Iranians from different ethnicities live peacefully together, I think.
I want to add something about the ethnic in Iran it might be helpful for understanding the situation: most of the ethnics of Iran live in border cities, Kurds and Azeris (Turks) in the west and the north, Arabs in the south, Baluchis in the east. Considering the fact that the central authorities (both the Shah and the Islamic republic) have been dictatorships and never been able to satisfy the people, the authorities have always been afraid of the separatists in the border towns where ethnics live. Their solution is simple: suppression.
When you sat down to make An Iranian Metamorphosis, was there a book you were thinking about or a model you had for how to make a graphic memoir?
No, at least not consciously. I just tried to tell the event in the best way I could.
Did you spend a lot of time and energy trying to capture people’s likenesses in the book?
Actually I do not care about the likenesses that much, I'd prefer to keep the essence of a character to make similar details.
How you work differently to make a long project like A Iranian Metamorphosis? Because a graphic novel of this length is very different from the cartoons most of us know you for.
For a long project you need to spend your free times and it is not easy specially when you have to produce one or two cartoons per day as your routine work, it would make some gaps in your comic project and sometime it takes more than two-three years to be finished.
What is your life like in France now?
I am a political refugee in France. Drawing cartoons for Iranian opposition websites (based in other countries like US and Netherlands) also working on some comic projects including a small comic manual for people who want to get refugee status in France.
Having made a graphic novel, are you interested in making another one - though hopefully not an autobiographic tale of horrible experiences like this one - or telling longer stories?
I have already done another one after An Iranian Metamorphosis, but it is in Persian with a lot of cultural references and hard to translate. A friend of mine translated it into French, but I have not been able yet to find a publisher. It seems that they do not expect me to do a funny surrealist comic. If you are a Western author you would be considered just as “an author” but if you are a Middle Eastern author you are considered to be “Middle Eastern” to them more than “author,” and be expected to tell about your exotic country! Anyway, I am doing a small comic manual about how to get refugee status in France right now. Also I am working on a script for another comic book about an infamous religious serial killer who murdered several prostitutes in Iran during 1990s.
I have to ask, what felt more Kafka-esque, dealing with Iranian officials and prison life or dealing with the UNHCR and trying to escape?
The cartoon consequences,the prison and the trial in Iran of course were more Kafka-esque, but we cannot deny that the UNCHR and the abroad part were good supplementary materials!
Right now Iran is in a curious position. I’m curious what it feels like from your perspective? Are you hopeful?
I am hopeful because I believe that our hope is the last property to be given up, otherwise, I am not a fortuneteller!