Iran Feature: Kafka in the Islamic Republic --- An Interview with Cartoonist Mana Neyestani (Shringarpure)
We often feature the commentary through images of Iranian political cartoonist Mana Neyestani, so we read with interest his interview with Bhakti Shringarpure. Speaking from Paris, where he now lives in exile with his wife Mansourieh, Neyestani talked about his recently-published graphic novel Une Métamorphose Iranienne (An Iranian Metamorphosis). The title is a reference to Franz Kafka's short story; however, it also alludes to the incident in 2006 when a cartoon by Neyestani led to riots and his arrest and detention.
Bhakti Shringarpure: Let's start with your graphic novel An Iranian Metamorphosis. Did you mean to evoke Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis in the title?
Mana Neyestani: Firstly, both stories have a beetle at their core, which plays an important part, but of course is not enough for choosing the title. I believe my story and the circumstances in which I was trapped was more or less a Kafkaesque situation. You know, you are sort of stuck in the system.
Bhakti Shringarpure: Yes, absolutely. I think your book depicts the tentacles of bureaucracy in Iran, much like the themes of Kafka's novel.
Mana Neyestani: You cannot control your fate. The system controls you. You desperately try to overcome the situation, and the situation becomes a mixture of comedy and tragedy. It's stupid, and at the same time, sad. It's more like The Trial than Metamorphosis, but I like the metaphor. If you notice, the theme of identity is important in the book, and how identity is attacked by the system. Not only the Iranian regime, you know. You try to keep your humanity and your identity as an intellectual, as a human being, and it's so fragile.
Bhakti Shringarpure: Your book captures that beautifully.
Mana Neyestani: Thanks.
Bhakti Shringarpure: Something about your graphic novel seems to suggest that censorship is almost arbitrary and not a centralized conspiracy to wipe out every form of opposition. How does it really work? And what do you make of the people involved at the most immediate level: “the small man” - interrogators, lawyers. Do they know what they are doing?
Mana Neyestani: Arbitrary censorship? Do you mean auto-censoring?
Bhakti Shringarpure: It felt that all the small characters involved in interrogation, policing, legal work, were not always aware that there is a bigger picture. They were sort of unthinking entities – following orders or just going along with things. When one thinks of nations with censorship, there is a feeling of Big Brother seeing/watching everything. But in your graphic-novel, I sensed a different representation of censorship.
Mana Neyestani: It is a compacted issue in a country like Iran. We are born with censorship. We grow up with censorship. They planted the "red lines" in our minds from the time we were children?. When we start to work in Iran as artists or journalists, we already automatically avoid some areas. We control ourselves. Sometimes we control other people. It’s a culture, a culture of censorship. I don't believe that censorship begins with authority; it begins with us, in our minds, and of course the authorities reinforce it.
Bhakti Shringarpure: This is what you mean by the term “auto-censorship."
Mana Neyestani: Yes. Let me give an example. Recently, an Iranian actress in exile, Golshifte Farahani, published some artistic nude photos. She was attacked by many Iranians, especially in social networks like Facebook. It was not the authorities. Sometimes, the authorities just watch the scene; they have done their job to perfection ahead of time. It is not easy for me to overcome the red lines in my mind even right now when I am living in a free society.
Regarding the people who follow the orders, I am not sure if they are seeking the financial benefits or doing their religious duties, it could be a combination of both. In a tyranny, people are trained to be feared and to follow. It is a paranoid situation: fear, hate, distrust. You know, it reminds me of little fish near a big whale. They try to get shelter and feel safe moving alongside the big brother.
Bhakti Shringarpure: For you, everything goes wrong because of the use of one Azeri word, "namana" which means something like "what." Let me quote from your book: "Only one cartoon or one journalist is not the issue. The problem is the history of ignorance that Persian intellectuals have always had towards Turkish-speaking Iranians. For many years, it’s been there in all the jokes and TV comedies that belittle Azeris. They don't let us teach our mother tongue in schools. They replace the Turkish names of our streets with Farsi names. And a lot of other prejudice, too." Can you explain this a little bit more?
Mana Neyestani: About Azeris, yes, it's true. I was never concerned about ethnic problems before those things happened to me. I considered myself "an Iranian" living in Tehran. After the "namana" story, I started to be called a "Fars insulter" by some angry Azeris [“namana” was the incriminating word]?. You know, "Fars" is a phrase that mentions the race, like "Turk." I never thought of myself as a part of a race. I don't know how to say this. It wasn't an issue for me. No wonder! Usually it becomes an issue when you’ve lived through a discriminatory situation. After the event, I started to be familiar with the situation and feel the hate, which is growing and caused by the cultural humiliation and governmental discrimination. I think when you are living in a society like Iran with a lot of complexities and paradoxes, it is expected that such misunderstandings will happen. Even when you make simple, innocent art work, it could acquire a different meaning or interpretation before a complicated background.
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