An artistic demonstration in the virtual world for human rights in Iran

Amir Soltani*

I remember the day I became a human rights activist.  I was 12 years old.  My father picked me up from school.  He bought me an ice-cream.  And, then gently broke the news of the executions.  Among the dead was the grandfather of one of my closest friends.  Shot dead with 13 bullets, without a trial, he was executed on the rooftop of the Alavi School, Ayatollah Khomeini's temporary residence. I threw the ice-cream out of the car window.  It was the only thing I could do, an act of impotence- a moment of rage.   

Only days earlier, my friend had reassured me that her grandfather would be freed.  It was only a matter of time.  I got home, opened the newspaper, and there he was, a face staring not so much at us, but at death itself.  My friend vanished, and for years, I was left holding onto the questions. I knew that those 13 bullets weren't lodged in her grandfather; they were buried and bleeding in her, every single one of them.  

There were other casualties. My father was one of them.  He had failed my friend and me. He had not intervened. He had not interrupted the execution; the executions.  If we could not stop death- those 13 bullets- with the force of our faith and family, then how could my father claim to be a man? How could we claim to have a faith?  And how could I grow up to become my father? And how could I accept his faith when it did so little to guard the price of my friendships?     

That execution was my first encounter with death, with the charge of all the commandments, history and emotions priced into the trajectory of those 13 bullets.  All of them etched as trauma in the fabric and foundation of time. But, then, an even deeper failure surfaced: the revolution was followed by war.  And again, I escaped the brush with war.  I was sent to a school in England, but there was no escaping the carnage of the Iran-Iraq war.  

Even in England, thousands of miles away from the Middle East, the pages of every newspaper were soaked in the blood of an entire generation of Iranian and Iraqi boys.  World War I, Wilfred Owen poems seemed to echo through time.  The killing fields had shifted from Europe to the Middle East, but our mentality, framed as it was into a machinery of serial killing and mass murder had not changed.  The front lines literally converted the flesh of boys into the face of tribes and territories.  Blood was sucked into the ground.  Oil pumped out of the ground.   In Iran's largest cemetery, ‘Zahra's Paradise’, a fountain of blood (artificial) symbolized the sacrifice gushing out of the boys.  All that remained of the kids mangled in war was row after row of intact images staring back at the world.  Their death- absence- was priced into everything, into the fabric of time and language, into tribe and territory, and yes, into me.   

Land was not the only nexus for converting the blood of children into the price of property. There was money to be made out of every corner of the morgue: merchants could speculate in the price of oil, the movements of gold, the sale of arms.  Virtually every industry, commodity and economy could be revived by speculating in the death of Iran and Iraq's children just as they were in the wars that had torn other nations and continents apart.  

Still, it seemed to me then, and now, especially now, thirty or so years later, when one has the benefit of hindsight, when one sees the children of so many other nations being plunged into the abyss of war, that we are far from abolishing the scourge of war.  From Syria to Afghanistan and the United States to Russia, generations of kids are being drawn into the killing fields of the Middle East.  There is no end to the Great Game, no end to speculation in the carcass of the living and the dead.   Nothing stops kids from being recycled into the price of oil and arms, the face of matter and markets, and the idols of tribe and territory erected above the morgue of time. Their only function, then as now, is to get exchanged into the price of cancerous currencies and gangrenous economies that convert flesh into money and pain into the profits by turning time into an instrument for insuring rates of death and debt.  

All these tribes and territories, created in the image of man, have turned into shadows and shrines of death.  And so in this century, as in centuries past, they are nothing but corpses and coffins that recycle kids into and out of the mints and morgues of time. There is no end to the assault on the temple of life, love and law that should protect all of God's children as one.  There are no walls, no barriers, no laws and no mirrors guarding the price of their flesh or faith. Kids, of course, don't know that their titles, tribes and territories will betray them, and that the only way out of war is by shedding all the death priced into their earthly skin. 

And so I am still the 12 year old human rights activist; still impotent before death; still raging against war; still searching for a way to stop 13 bullets from shattering my friend's world; still hoping against hope that one day I will grow up to be a real man; still wondering if one can turn time around so that it ceases to be a measure and mirror guarding the image of tribes and territories born and bound to death. 

Until then, I fantasize about a day when we will stop executions, and pray for a time when we will reclaim our faith: pull our funds out of cycles of war in coffins of debt and invest them back where they belong: in temples of love and life.  

For life to blossom and humanity to flourish, we need better stories, playful and persuasive ways of imagining alternatives to killing, singular or serial.  God knows that we have buried enough kids in this earth- maybe it is time to turn this tomb of time into what it was meant to be: the garden of paradise.  


A Graphic Novel 
Zahra's Paradise was inspired by promise of an Iranian Spring.  Like millions of people around the world, I was moved by the 2009 protests against the fraudulent presidential elections, by the passion, dignity, courage and creativity of the Iranian people; by the power of a simple question: "Where is my vote?" That question was shaking the foundations of a theocracy founded on fear, fraud and force. We were witnessing the birth pangs of a new Iran, the face of a new generation that dared to realize its dream of freedom, a dream for equality, dignity and justice for which Iranians have struggled since the constitutional revolution of 1906.     
And then came the Ayatollah's crackdown, and with it, the haunting image of a beautiful young woman, Neda, dying on the streets of Tehran. And then a YouTube video of an Iranian mother about to bury another protester, her son Sohrab, in ‘Zahra's Paradise’, Tehran's largest cemetery. On her face, one could feel the anguish and the sorrow of an entire nation. She had been searching for her son all over Tehran- in the hospitals, morgues, prisons and courts- without getting a single straight answer. She could not accept the reality of her son's death. Her entire being revolted against the idea of burying him at age 19. There, in Zahra's Paradise, standing above her son's corpse, that mourning mother spoke, not only through her own grief, but the grief of an entire nation, a grief that has singed the hearts of women through all ages and across all nations. And there and then, watching that YouTube video, I felt that enough was enough.  We did not have to accept the Ayatollah’s reality- the idea of Iran as a corpse and Islam as a coffin- as our own.  We did not have to bury the body and the dreams of another generation of Iranian youth in dust and dirt. There had to be some way of turning all that death back into life, some way of defying gravity and turning time around. And for me, the way was by telling the story of a burial in Zahra’s Paradise. And wondering where these deaths in paradise- these cemeteries and burials- really take place: in the cemetery or in our hearts? 

virtual campaign
The connections between art, protest, technology really opened up the possibilities for a virtual campaign.     
The idea behind Zahra's Paradise was to open a new front in the battle for human rights in Iran, and that was to leverage the power of the graphic novel as a medium for protest and activism. A bit like the pamphlet during the French Revolution, the graphic novel is the ultimate democratic medium: it is cheap, fast and accessible. In terms of producing content, all you need to realize a vision is a pencil and a bit of imagination.   
In our case, we did not need that much imagination thanks to Iran’s tech-savvy youth. In the 2009 protests, they had turned their cell phones and blogs into instruments for citizen-journalism. The Iranian people were no longer activists locked behind the Ayatollah's screens and stages but bloggers who controlled the means of representation, and thus, the producers, editors and distributors of their own reality. The Islamic Republic could not wipe out that reality. Neda’s death was a fact witnessed by the entire world. So was Sohrab’s funeral. Those facts appeared as fragment, glimpses into a mirror of time that reflected the real face of the Iranian people. All we did was to collect and combine these fragments into a single story: a stream of real images, memories and moments formatted as a blog and presented as virtual reality. So in terms of producing a campaign, Zahra’s Paradise was just part of a continuum, an extension and expression of the protests in Iran.   
Our publisher at ‘First Second’, Mark Siegel had the idea of serializing Zahra's Paradise on the web.  For free.  As he put it, the Internet was our minaret, and art, in the form of the graphic novel, was our opportunity to intervene in history.  And he was right.  The Internet was not only revolutionizing production of content but also its consumption. All the traditional barriers to communication-time, space and language- had collapsed. Zahra could exist in a virtual space that the Islamic Republic could not censor. She could communicate freely. And she could interact with a global audience in real time. Our readers were no longer passive consumers of news but active participants in a global movement for human rights in Iran.   
Partnerships with human rights groups like Amnesty International, the Boroumand Foundation and United4Iran also helped us connect the virtual to the real. It is their work- work is the wrong word- their devotion that allowed us to ground Zahra’s story- fiction- in fact. Over the past decade, the Boroumand Foundation has created the Omid Memorial, a list of over 16,000 Iranians who have been killed by the Islamic Republic. They have collected and documented facts about the grizzliest of human rights violations, guarding the sanctity and dignity of life by binding it to love, language and law. They generously allowed us to publish that list at the end of Zahra’s Paradise.   
 The 2009 protests had also given birth to United4Iran, a human rights group that knew how to wage a global grassroots campaign.  Within a matter of weeks, they had organized a Global Day of Action: protests in solidarity with the Iranian people in over 120 cities around the world. The sense of possibility, creativity and community was boundless as people from every background and discipline joined their hands and hearts in calling for the release of political prisoners and an end to human rights violations in Iran.   
Fast forward to 2013, and virtually every piece for launching our campaign was in place: we had Zahra, a mourning mother with a powerful story and a deep commitment to human rights. We had a team of campaign wizards in United4Iran- a network of activists and volunteers; we had a global constituency of human rights and democracy activists; we had technology: cell phones, blogs and the Internet; we had the Iranian people, especially women and youth; and we had a crumbling and bumbling theocracy hiding behind the illusion of democracy: an unelected body of 12 old men- the Council of Guardians- rigging yet another fraudulent election in favour of another unelected old man, the Supreme Leader, by treating the Iranian people as a virtual reality. It was the perfect moment for a virtual storm.

Zahra’s Contribution 

The regime has become a threat to itself and to the Iranian people. Iran's revolutionary establishment is falling apart.  They are holding a former prime minister, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and a former speaker of the parliament, Mehdi Karroubi, under house arrest.  And they disqualified Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, the former president who literally crowned Ali Khamenei Supreme Leader.  So if anyone is in trouble, it is the Supreme Leader. We have nothing to fear from standing for human rights, for our Iran, the Iran of love, life and laughter.  
Zahra is about the power of imagination. She reminds the Iranian people that they have every right to defy reality, especially when you consider that the Islamic Republic itself is more than a fiction held together by fraud and force. Zahra is about the power of the Iranian people to dream of another future and to live in another Iran, a democratic and joyful Iran where their votes count and their lives matter. She is the only woman candidate in the race- even though virtual- and the only candidate running on a human rights platform.  
Zahra is the only candidate challenging the legitimacy of a religious politburo- 13 unelected old men- 12 on the Council of Guardians, and one Supreme Leader- to rule a nation of 70 million where 70% of the population is less than 35 years old. At a moment in Iranian history when the leaders are dismissing the Iranian people as "dust and dirt", it made plenty of sense for Zahra to enter the race as a virtual candidate. To Iran's leaders, Zahra may be no more than an illusion speaking to dust and dirt, but her tears are real. Who knows what magic lies buried in her tears and what miracles can rise out of dust and dirt? After all, as Zahra knows only too well, Iran is a land where, paradoxically, the virtual can be more powerful than the real.

Of course, It is very hard for people inside Iran to vote for Zahra. She is not on the ballot, but we have had hundreds of people send us their photos in support of Zahra's call for “free and fair elections”.  And we have more hits on facebook and twitter than the other eight presidential candidates, so we are definitely the frontrunner. More importantly, the principles for which Zahra stands- human rights, abolition of the death penalty, release of political prisoners, equality of women, protection of students and scholars, respect for the will and the vote of the Iranian people- have deep support inside and outside Iran. The principles are what matters- we have staked our ground- and virtually everyone knows that we can have a better Iran. 

The truth is that over the past thirty years, the Islamic Republic has forced millions of Iranians to leave their country, but neither force nor fraud and neither time nor distance can kill our love for Iran, its culture and its people.  What we are going through today is a bit like what France went through in the Second World War. On the surface, the Ayatollah's appear in power, but throughout the country, there is deep and growing resistance against a dictatorship that has no grounding in Iranian history or culture.  

Iranian artist, writer and human rights activist

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