We often feature the work of Maya Neyestani, whose cartoons illuminate the repression of the Iranian regimme while --- occasionally --- offering a glimmer of persistence and hope amidst that repression. Writing for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Golnaz Esfandiari profiles the cartoonist:
A cockroach landed Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani in jail and turned his life upside down.
In 2006, a cartoon by Neyestani that showed the pest speaking Azeri sparked riots among Iran's minority Azeris. The cartoon, which ran in the children's section of the state newspaper, "Iran," showed a cockroach asking, "What?" in Azeri. It was deemed insulting by many members of Iran's Azeri minority, who took to the streets to show their anger.
The government responded with force. Nineteen people reportedly died in the clashes and many others were arrested.
Neyestani and the editor of the paper ended up in solitary confinement in Tehran's Evin prison under conditions the cartoonist described as "Kafkaesque." Three months later, Neyestani used a temporary prison leave to flee the country with his wife. He finally ended up in exile in France after spending time in several other countries, including Turkey, Malaysia, and China.
Now, the 39-year-old cartoonist has recounted his time in prison in a graphic novel titled "An Iranian Metamorphosis," which was recently published in France. The book, whose title is a reference to Franz Kafka's famous story about a man who turns into a giant insect and is ostracized by his family, is also due to be published in other European countries and possibly in the United States.
In the novel, Neyestani's time in jail --- including the psychological torture he faced and numerous interrogations where he was purportedly asked to confess to having received money from foreigners and other fabricated charges --- is depicted in powerful black-and-white illustrations with his signature dark humor and, of course, many cockroaches.
In one scene, he tells his interrogator he decided to use the word "Namana" --- which is "what" in Azeri --- because many Iranians use it while speaking Farsi.
"I didn't have its Azeri origins in mind," he says.
The interrogator tells Neyestani that he's unconvincing and asks him to think of better motives, as well as to provide "all the information he has about his fellow cartoonists."
An architect by training, the real-life Neyestani says he decided to produce the book to illustrate the difficult and often absurd, tragicomic situation intellectuals in Iran face.
To many Iranians, Neyestani is known as the creator of a comic strip called "The Engaged Family", which for the last two years has documented the life of a middle-class Iranian family. The family supports the opposition Green Movement and Neyestani chronicles their interactions with "the dictator".
The strip, which is published on a Persian news website based abroad, has gained enormous popularity for the way it shows how humor can help people cope with the painful realities of life in Iran.
A recent installment of "The Engaged Family" reflected the anger many members of the opposition felt after they heard the news that former President Mohammad Khatami had voted in the March parliamentary elections, which other reformists boycotted.
In the cartoon, the grandfather of the family has broken a mirror over a dazed-looking Khatami, who is standing next to a ballot box covered with bloody handprints.
Neyestani's cartoons pulse with feelings of hope, lack of freedom, and frustration with the absurd social and political rules that Iranians face in their day-to-day lives. His drawings depict Iranian leaders as obsessed with nuclear power, show how sanctions hurt ordinary people, evoke the specter of war with Israel, highlight the plight of political prisoners, and, in general, draw attention to vexing issues on the minds of many Iranians.