Cheap Thugs

Amir on his graphic novel "Zahra's Paradise"


Cheap Thugs
by Ari Siletz

Amir & Khalil's graphic novel Zahra’s Paradise "weaves together a composite of real people and events [See Chapter One]. As the world witnessed what could no longer be kept from view, through YouTube videos, on Twitter and in blogs, so this story came to be and had to be told.
The author Amir is an Iranian-American human rights activist, journalist and documentary filmmaker. He has lived and worked in the United States, Canada, Europe and Afghanistan. His essays and articles have appeared far and wide in the press."
 Here's an interview with Amir:

You make a point of the protesters shouting Allah o Akbar from the rooftops. What are your thoughts as to the extent of the religious sincerity in these cries? A true prayer or a safe slogan for the purposes of political solidarity?

What a brilliant question. Where does religious sincerity, or for that matter, religious hypocrisy, morph into political solidarity? Or pushing your question further, why are what are clearly political protests assuming a religious form? Afterall, the dispute over the elections was a political dispute. Why give it a religious dimension by chanting Allahu Akbar? Is that a sign of conformity with the Islamic Republic’s religious pretenses and hypocrisies, or, on the contrary, is chanting Allahu Akbar a way to take political protests one notch higher and strip the Islamic Republic of religious legitimacy? My hunch? The latter.

The protagonists in your novel seem middle class-cell phones, computers, sunglasses, high-fives. Do you believe most of the supporters of the oppression come from the poorer classes?

Yes, the protagonists are middle-class. They wield cell phones, computers and sunglasses, listen to music, and generally want to be connected and in touch with the world. But I think that’s true of all classes in Iran. Rich or poor, I think, Iranians, regardless of class, tend to be worldly, curious, open, friendly and hip. Iran, afterall, is not North Korea.

But, I don’t think the supporters of the oppression are from the poor classes. Not at all. First of all, there are all kinds of oppression. And I suspect that we can all be oppressive. And secondly, I think there is a distinction between poor and cheap.

I don’t think the poor, by virtue of being poor, lack an ethical foundation, or somehow support or profit from the Islamic Republic’s acts of violence, theft, rape and murder.

Of course, the fundamentalist ideologues of the Islamic Republic, have given Marxism an Islamic twist. As with the French, Russian and Chinese revolutionaries, they claim to represent “the oppressed on earth”, the “Mostazafin”, but what they do in the name of the poor, in the name of Iran and in the name of Islam has nothing to do with poverty.

When I look at the revolutionary vanguard of the Islamic Republic, from its first days till now, they were not poor. They were mediocre, pretentious and arrogant: second-rate graduates of third rate American or French universities. Was Yazdi poor? Qutbzadeh? Beheshti? Bani-Sadr? Rafsanjani? Are the Larijani brothers from the underprivileged classes? Is Mortazavi? Or Mottaki? Poor, no. Cheap, yes. Greedy, definitely. Oppressive, of course.

If I had to guess, I would say the supporters of oppression in Iran can come from all classes. And they are generally cheap, not poor.

Finally, I think we have to move away from thinking of each other in terms of categories and classes, and then ascribing particular labels and qualities to those classes. I think these labels lead to crude and vulgar ways of looking at people through the divisive lens of theory rather than the unifying kaleidoscope that's life.

The name of the missing brother is “Mehdi.” Besides the obvious fact that we are waiting for him, are there any other attributes of the missing brother that resemble the concept of “Mahdi?”

What makes Mehdi, Mehdi is that he’s not a concept. He’s a brother, a son, and a lover. He’s fallible. There’s nothing perfect or abstract about him. He could belong to any family.

Does Miriam’s drinking and smoking habit make a statement about the character in your novel?

You bet! The western stereotype that all Iranian women are somehow these meek and miserable women is nonsense. The Iranian women I grew up with were gutsy. They came in all shapes and sizes (not just skinny), broke just about every taboo and stereotype, had a great deal of fun, and never lost the sense of who they were and where they came from.

The cynical, middle-aged gentleman in the pinstripe suit (criticizing Shirin Ebadi) stands out among the supporting characters. What does he represent?

If he stands out, it must be his pinstripe suit. Blame that on Khalil. What does he represent? Anger, a deep volcanic anger that I have felt in so many men of his generation. It grows in force and power as we get closer to the end of Zahra’s Paradise.

There’s a strong sense of chaos in the graphics. When people aren’t fighting each other over the elections, they’re fighting over traffic. Do you think once the protest movement succeeds, ordinary life would become less stressful?

No. God forbid. Who are we kidding! We’re Iranians. How can we live a stress free life? Do the Spaniards? Or the Greeks? Or for that matter the Americans and Israelis? Nah. If the protest movement succeeds, hopefully we will be able to stress about new things.

What is your best vision of Iran in the future? What sort of government, national behavior and citizen ethics would you like to see?

You know, my best vision of Iran’s future is as a light to the world’s nations, a land of love and life. And it’s not a fantasy. I mean look at the light, the love and the faith shining through the mirrors buried in our heart. We’ve got Hafiz, Rumi and all these other giants infusing our language and character with the force of their spirit and vision. That’s an extraordinary heritage. Majestic. And I see it reflected in Iranians all the time, everywhere. It’s in our culture, our manners, our generosity and our genius. It’s wired into our language and our hearts. We’re just in denial about how truly magnificent we can be, and somehow I think we’re a moody people. We have to hit rock bottom, and then, when it’s absolutely necessary, we can pull off all kinds of miracles. So what I want to see happen in Iran does not matter. What matters is the power of the words, the touch, the life and the love that has been bred in the flesh and bone of the Iranian people. No government and no oppression can tear Hafiz or Rumi out of our hearts. We are who we are and that's all we need to be and all we need to do. That's not hard. Once we connect to the spiritual principles that define our core, and extend each other the deep respect and reverence we extend others, everything else—government, religion, prosperity—will fall into place. I think getting Iran right is ridiculously easy if we don't try too hard!!

Which one has a bigger role in bringing about the changes you wish to see, political leaders or artists?

Artists, hands down. They have the power of the imagination. And you can’t change anything without imagination.

And the other thing that artists have is that they are not bound by the constraints of time or space or other conventions (religion, gender, culture…etc.) When it’s the right moment, whether it’s through words, music, art or dance, they can recreate time and space by connecting to some creative force inside, and beyond themselves.

Your question makes me think about the first slave who dared to imagine himself a free man. Was he an artist or a politician? Was his impulse religious or political? What did it take for that first slave to project a vision of himself that broke all the mirrors in which he appeared in chains?

I think that is what the Iranian people, especially Iranian women and youth, are doing. And I hope that Zahra’s Paradise, if it does nothing else, allows us to capture and hold onto this image of Iran, and the world, a fleeting glimpse of the dreams of generations coming together as one.

I think the greatest politicians have to be artists. They have to search for and speak to deeper truths. Sure, no one may recognize that first slave. The artist. They may tear him to pieces or bury him in darkness to keep the rest of the slaves from imagining freedom, demanding equality, fighting for justice. It may take a thousand years, and millions of dead slaves, for a Martin Luther King, Mandela or Obama to rise out of the suffering generations, literally the corpse of the dead, and give voice, and thus life, to the dream of the broken and butchered slave, and it may take an eternity for that first slave to come back to life as reality dancing in the flesh and blood of millions, but what a dance that slave will dance and what a song that slave will sing.

But what matters is that through art—even if that art was no more than getting crushed and mutilated in a canvass created out of flesh and bones--the slave did not just become a man, or a woman. He defined manhood and womanhood—the act of becoming free by refusing to submit before death. By believing in the possibility of life, in the fullness of life, and in the unity of life, even if it appeared beyond all reach. And that, if I’m not mistaken, is what I believe the people of Iran are doing. All the odds are against them, and yet they are creating a new canvass for the birth of a truer Iran, one that is closer to their spirit. Just look at the creativity gushing out of Iran and Iranians, the life force that is electrifying the world’s imagination, and you know that what’s taking place in Iran—not China—is what will define the soul and spirit of the next century, if not, millennium.

We have a huge civil rights struggle taking shape in Iran, and if we win, we will not be winning it just for ourselves, but for generations to come. And not only for generations to come, but for the generations that have passed. And not only in Iran, but all over the world. So yes, I want to see Iran change. Don’t you?


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