An Iranian Metamorphosis: Cockroaches and Censorship in Iran
This article is part of The Mantle's series Against Censorship.
An Iranian Metamorphosis
by Mana Neyestani
Translated from the Persian by Ghazal Mosadeq
Uncivilized Books (2014), 208 pp
Although Iranian cartoonist and illustrator Mana Neyestani titles his autobiographical graphic novel with an explicit reference to Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, it is really The Trial against which Neyestani's An Iranian Metamorphosis astutely draws parallels. True, it is a pesky vermin in the body of a tiny cartoon cockroach that gets both Neyestani and the illustrated version of himself into heaps of trouble, but it is the illogical nightmare winding throughout the graphic novel that lends itself to the Kafkaesque.
In May 2006, Neyestani's children's cartoon – published in the magazine Iran-e-jomee – sparked violent riots that resulted in arrests, deaths, and unrest in his home country, Iran. The panel that infuriated so many was of a cockroach speaking a single word: namana, the Azerbaijani word for “what,” which is often used by Persian speakers in Iran, as well. The Azeri Turk minority thought the cartoonist was insulting them by putting their word into the mouth of a cockroach.
The controversial depiction published in Iran-e-jomee on May 19, 2006.1
Neyestani and his editor were promptly arrested and their newspaper closed, and so this is the story told in An Iranian Metamorphosis.
It is difficult to ignore what it means for a cartoonist to be maligned and persecuted by irrational people over a silly picture. After compulsively reading and watching about the tragedy in Paris at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Neyestani's own condemnation received from the small-minded authority who imprisoned him ran concurrently in my mind while digesting the horrible events that kicked off this year. Neyestani's panels take on a new life as I flip through his graphic novel reviewing the pictures that meant one thing a couple of months ago and now even more in the present. As a reader, I knew his suffering was real as I first read the book, but now it becomes even more of a crosshatched nightmare.
Beginning in a nondescript room, the author sweats large, frightening drops as he is instructed by authorities to write down the whole story. He is presented with a blank page, a square where he is to place everything. In the fourth panel he worries, "How can I summarize the last five months inside a small rectangle?"
An Iranian Metamorphosis feels almost never-ending as the illustrated Neyestani is kept indefinitely in prison. His days are relegated to the confining space of his cell or in the interrogation room, not only hounded by his keepers, but the cartoon cockroach that got him into so much trouble.
Neyestani the illustrator breaks free of the square boxes on the pages and often draws his scenes outside of the defined lines. The story runs wherever he sees fit, an action barred from him during his time locked away.
It is difficult to imagine any misery in multi-faceted colors. Somehow our minds refrain from remembering anything with shades. Neyestani's choice to draw his panels with a black and white, pencil-sketched look was wise. The unremitting tedium of the day-after-day is only enhanced by the devoid. The reader is also reminded of the inherent fact that what they are reading is a graphic novel composed of drawings displaying an event that was brought about by an illustration. Of course, An Iranian Metamorphosis is political, but it is also about art.
Neyestani melds many concepts: the aforementioned politics and art, but also religion, ethnicity, and the oppression felt by so many in Iran. The illustrated Neyestani meets intellectual and political prisoners deemed dangerous by the authoritarian state. Their lives and thoughts are wasted away behind prison walls. They are each drawn differently and distinctly; these men do not merely fade into the background. The reader sees them as individuals and reads the specifics concerning their detainment.
The attacks on cartoonists and other civilians in Paris make the majority of people disgusted by the actions of a few terrorists or extremists, or both. Nations and individuals rally that this vile behavior won't be tolerated (and it most definitely shouldn't), but what is intriguing about Neyestani's life and depiction of it in An Iranian Metamorphosis is that we somehow don't become adamantly riled by the same behavior perpetrated by a sovereign state—at least not to the same extent.
Neyestani ends his graphic novel in the Kafkaesque loop which it started and continued. If it wasn't for the epilogue, one could believe that this irrationality went on forever. He was eventually able to leave Iran and the irony is also not lost on me that when he hightailed it out of there, he finally found asylum in France where he currently lives, so he can work without fear and torture.