Amir is plain-spoken when he talks about the place called Behesht-e Zahra - the Paradise of Zahra - but a quiet awe sets in quickly.
"It's a massive cemetery on the outskirts of Tehran, on the way to the city of Qum," he says. "It's just been growing and growing and growing at an extraordinary rate."
The almost impossible spectrum of Iranians who rest there tell the country's story. Ayatollah Khomeini lies in the Paradise of Zahra, along with victims of the Iran-Iraq war, martyrs of the 1979 revolution, clerics, dissidents, soldiers and laymen. After a beautiful young protester named Neda Agha-Soltan was killed in 2009 - a death that would be seen by hundreds of millions - she, too, was interred there.
So when two U.S.-based expatriates, Amir and Khalil (who remain anonymous to protect their families in Iran), launched a graphic novel in an ambitious attempt to dramatize the Iranian protest, Zahra's Paradise didn't just give the project a name, but an emotional core.
"So many Iranians lie buried there," Amir says. "So much youth, so much life that's been wasted there."
Set at the height of last year's bloody "Green revolution," Zahra's Paradise tells the story of a young Tehrani blogger and his mother (also named Zahra), who are searching for his vanished brother, Mehdi. The story is drawn in spare, flowing lines, stepping readers through a bleak vision of Tehran after the protests, emptied of life and littered with the wounded.
But what sets Zahra's Paradise apart is that, unusually for a printed graphic novel, it is first being serialized online, one page at a time (each page containing about four panels), and in no fewer than six concurrent languages. When the story reaches its projected run of 160 pages (though it could expand further), in 2011, it will be released as a book.
Produced through New York-based First Second Books, an imprint of Macmillan, Zahra's Paradise takes a tradition of politically oriented graphic novels - a tradition with roots in works such as Palestine, Joe Sacco's 1992 retrospective about his experiences in the West Bank, and Art Spiegelman's Holocaust parable Maus - and applies it to a situation that's still very much unfolding.
"The Iranian story is very interesting, because it's not following a pattern we know from before," says Mark Siegel, the book's editor and the editorial director of First Second. "I hope, in a way, that Zahra's Paradise is part of this unique pattern, that it's a player here instead of commenting from the sidelines."
Siegel says he's still scrambling in the aftermath of the strip's launch: The logistics of organizing simultaneous translations of a thrice-weekly strip into Persian, Arabic, Dutch, French, Spanish and Italian were formidable. Translating a comic strip on the fly can bring some unexpected headaches. Some languages, like Arabic, read from right to left; this means that the art needs to be flipped too. But since some visual elements can't simply be reversed - writing in the background, for instance - certain drawings need to be redone too.
"Comics take a long time to draw," says Peter Birkemoe, owner of The Beguiling, one of Canada's top comic-book retailers. Birkemoe notes that while topical, quickly produced comics are commonplace and graphic novels have a long political tradition, the two are seldom combined - especially as part of a book deal.
"Political cartoons can be very topical," he says. "But a graphic narrative takes a lot longer to produce."
Whatever it is that's separating Iranians, there's no question that they're dying together Amir
The website, which is getting around 14,000 unique visitors each day, is still visible in Iran. Meanwhile, the blog it is attached to is attracting commentary from members of the Iranian diaspora and outsiders alike. Some critique its portrayal of life in Iran; others enthusiastically endorse the work, and offer their services in translating it into even more languages.
The graphic novel is a first for both Amir, the writer, and Khalil, the illustrator. Siegel - who says he has a fascination with Iran - found them through artist A.B. Sina, with whom he was making a graphic-novel adaptation of the Prince of Persia video game. ("It sounds more like hokey orientalist pop-culture," Siegel says, but the stand-alone story that resulted was well reviewed.) Amir started pitching Siegel on unrelated ideas, but when the protests erupted in Iran, they realized they had found their story.
According to the book's authors, the graphic-novel medium gives them the chance to give narrative sweep to a story that has unfolded through the lenses of Twitter and headline news.
"The news always comes across as fragments of time," says Amir, who fled Iran as a teenager after the revolution. "You catch a glimpse of this, you catch a glimpse of that, but it's very hard to put the whole picture together."
The book art and story alike draw heavily on real stories and images from the protest movement. Khalil, the illustrator, will work allusions to iconic photographs into his art: An infamous image of a wounded young man cradling his arm is quietly echoed in a drawing of hospital chaos.
And its characters echo real figures from the protest, such as Mohsen Ruholamini, a 25-year-old who was reported to have died of prison abuse in 2009, and Sohrab Arabi, a 19-year-old who was gunned down in the protests. Both, like Neda Agha-Soltan, were buried in Zahra's Paradise.It's also an uncomfortable reminder of the story of Hossein Derakhshan, the one-time Torontonian who helped spark the Iranian blogging movement, before voluntarily returning to his homeland in 2008, only to be imprisoned indefinitely.
Siegel hopes that the steady posting of pages will not just build interest in the project, but help refocus attention on the human-rights situation in Iran. "Right now, the Iranian regime has shifted the focus to the nuclear issue, and is keeping the focus there, skillfully and cunningly," he says. "This story keeps coming back to the human-rights story, to the life on the ground, to what this regime really has turned its country into."
For Amir, there seems to be an urgency that transcends the detachment of the observer.
"I've tried a lot of other approaches to this human-rights question. You know, I really have. Letter-writing, petitions, signatures," he says. And then, his thoughts return to the cemetery outside Tehran.
"Whatever it is that's separating Iranians, there's no question that they're dying together."
Ivor Tossell is a Toronto-based writer.