Zahra's Paradise

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Set in the aftermath of Iran’s fraudulent elections of 2009, Zahra’s Paradise is the fictional story of the search for Mehdi, a young protestor who has vanished into an extrajudicial twilight zone. What’s keeping his memory from being obliterated is not the law. It is the grit and guts of his mother, who refuses to surrender her son to fate, and the tenacity of his brother, a blogger, who fuses tradition and technology to explore and explode the void in which Mehdi has vanished....

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Set in the aftermath of Iran’s fraudulent elections of 2009, Zahra’s Paradise is the fictional story of the search for Mehdi, a young protestor who has vanished into an extrajudicial twilight zone. What’s keeping his memory from being obliterated is not the law. It is the grit and guts of his mother, who refuses to surrender her son to fate, and the tenacity of his brother, a blogger, who fuses tradition and technology to explore and explode the void in which Mehdi has vanished.

Zahra’s Paradise weaves together fiction and real people and events. As the world witnessed the aftermath of Iran’s fraudulent elections, through YouTube videos, on Twitter, and in blogs, this story came into being. The global response to this gripping tale has been passionate—an echo of the global outcry during the political upheaval of the summer of 2009.


Zahra’s Paradise is a first on the internet, a first for graphic novels, and a first in the history of political dissidence. Zahra’s Paradise is being serialized online.


Zahra’s Paradise is a Publishers Weekly Best Comics title for 2011.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This collected web comic resembles Persepolis in its loathing for the current Iranian regime, but these creators anonymous for political reasons focus their story via an urgent crisis within one family, as young Mehdi’s mother and brother search for him after he vanishes during the government’s crackdown on protests against fraudulent national elections in 2009. Now no one in authority will admit knowing what happened to him. From the testimony of the angry but fearful people Medhi’s friends encounter, from cab drivers to former aristocrats, it’s clear that Mehdi is just one of a disaffected majority whose existence the people in power must deny, since they can maintain the official version of righteousness only by rape, torture, and murder. The authors successfully generalize from one case to the dreadful condition of all Iranians. Medhi’s mother is named Zahra, and “Zahra’s Paradise” is also a huge cemetery near Tehran; the woman’s graveside rant condemns everyone who won’t stand up for justice. Khalil’s art is a mix of confident caricature, clean cartoony panels, and montage that’s remarkably adept at capturing all kinds of action and emotion. The end effect is a powerful look at a people’s struggle that goes beyond politicized tropes. Sept.
VOYA - Iain McCormick
This book offers a very real and gritty look at what it is like to live in Iran. With genuine and lively characters, the story's emotion seeps from the page, permeating every pore of your being. Through all the violent acts presented, such themes as family, faith, unity, and hope still rise to the surface. While it is quick to introduce brutality, this book succeeds in bringing a sense of hope by its close. 4Q, 3P. Reviewer: Iain McCormick, Teen Reviewer
VOYA - Nancy Wallace
When nineteen-year-old Mehdi vanishes after a protest demonstration in Freedom Square following the 2009 election in Iran, his mother and brother begin to search for him. Visiting the scene of the protest, they find blood spattering the pavement and a shoe in the gutter. The police are no help. They comb the hospitals and then, at last, the morgue, but there is no word of Mehdi. When a fellow protestor, Joseph, is released, he reluctantly discloses his own torture and rape by prison officials. Joseph reports that he last saw Mehdi in prison. Political avenues fail to gain Mehdi's release, though his family has powerful friends. His sealed casket is returned for burial to Zahra's Paradise, a cemetery. This fictionalized story of one missing son among the 4,000 people arrested during the protests of the Iranian election is explicit and chilling. The choice of telling the story as a graphic novel intensifies the violent content. Rape, torture, execution, and abject cruelty are vividly portrayed. Additional notes, after the narrative, report that 115 protestors were executed, while as many as 100 were raped. Thirteen pages of names in tiny print are included, listing actual victims of the Iranian government's reign of terror. While this book offers a powerful epitaph to those who dared to question tyranny, its appeal may be limited. The cover art is bland and unattractive, belying the violent and tragic subject matter within. Reviewer: Nancy Wallace
Children's Literature - Claudia Mills
In this searing graphic novel, an international sensation since it first appeared online, readers are immersed in the wrenching reality of life in the oppressive regime of contemporary Iran. His mother and brother (our blogger narrator) search with unflagging devotion for nineteen-year-old Mehdi, who "disappeared" after a street protest against Mahmoud Ahmandinejad's autocratic rule. Their search reveals horrific conditions in secret prisons, including male rape by prison officials, and unspeakable corruption at the highest levels of governmental authority. The authors (writing anonymously to avoid political persecution) relive the numbing horror of their narrative with vivid portraits of a range of everyday Iranian citizens, from a generous, foul-mouthed cab driver to the grieving mother's chain-smoking, tough-talking, huge-hearted friend. The novel ends in personal tragedy, but also in undaunted will to resist human rights abuses everywhere. Appendices round out the story with factual information about Iran's 2009 presidential elections, execution rates in Iran and elsewhere, victims' testimony, and a heartbreaking tiny-print list of 16,901 individuals "executed, shot in demonstrations, or assassinated since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran." Definitely abounding with "mature" themes and language, this is an incendiary call to human rights awareness and activism. Reviewer: Claudia Mills, Ph.D.
Library Journal
As in Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, here the personal Iran reveals the political. We meet Zahra and Hassan, mother and son, as they search for younger son Mehdi, who has gone missing. All fear his capture by the Secret Police in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election. In the end, Mehdi is found, but not happily, in this parable out of Kafka. Yet the warmth and passion of the Persian soul shine through—eros also. It should be noted that Zahra is not just the titular mother: Zahra's Paradise is a real, million-grave cemetery in Tehran, and Zahra Kazemi was an actual Canadian-Iranian journalist who was beaten to death in an Iranian prison. Khalil's excellent art has been compared with Satrapi's, but it more resembles Craig Thompson's with a hefty dose of M.C. Escher. Both creators of this "collage," fictionalized from true stories, are expat Iranians working anonymously. Originally a multi-language webcomic, the book will be published in numerous countries. VERDICT Alternately horrible, lovely, and charming, Zahra's sad quest evokes the spirit of people seeking justice. Some violence and sex-related content may limit the age appropriateness. Highly recommended for older teens and up seeking insights into the Middle East.—M.C.
Megan Buskey
Zahra's Paradise…makes the distinction between good and evil too stark: Meh­di comes off as an angel, not a teenager. But Khalil's brilliant and nuanced illustrations go a long way to correct this heavy-handedness; he manages to convey a range of emotions in a feature as simple as Mrs. Alavi's eyebrows.
—The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596436428
  • Publisher: First Second
  • Publication date: 9/13/2011
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 177,638
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet 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. Khalil’s work as a fine artist has been much praised. He has been cartooning since he was very young. Zahra’s Paradise is his first graphic novel. Both Amir and Khalil have chosen to remain anonymous for political reasons.

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