Mana Neyestani reflects in ‘An Iranian Metamorphosis’

The political cartoonist details his struggles in graphic-novel memoir
October 31, 2014

(Mana Neyestani)

In the tradition of comic-book artists, Mana Neyestani signs the inside cover of An Iranian Metamorphosis not just with an autograph, but with a sketch. In front of a fan at New York’s Brooklyn Book Festival in September, he traced a precariously balanced trapeze artist, hunched over with pen in hand, drawing the tightrope as he walks along it. It’s a self-portrait. “I make my path by drawing and it is always possible to lose balance and fall,” Neyestani says. “It is the only way of life which I know and I love, and it is too risky.”

One of Iran’s best-known political cartoonists, Neyestani, 41, was jailed in 2006 for a comic in a children’s section of a newspaper that showed a cockroach speaking Azeri, the language of Iran’s Azerbaijani minority. The long-aggrieved Azeri thought Neyestani was comparing them to cockroaches, and riots ensued. Neyestani and his editor ended up in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison.

When Neyestani was granted leave, he fled. After bouncing around from Dubai to Turkey, Malaysia to China, he and his wife landed in Paris, where they live today.

An Iranian Metamorphosis recounts his saga, showing how the Iranian government coerces its press, and the Kafkaesque absurdities that can befall a journalist who runs afoul of that authority. “I needed to get rid of the memories,” Neyestani says after signing copies of the graphic memoir on his first trip to the US. “When I put it down on the paper, it was a kind of therapy.”

The memoir-as-graphic-novel flips seamlessly from realism to metaphor with a dose of dark humor. When Neyestani is forced to tattle on fellow cartoonists, he draws himself as Judas at Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, scribbling his confessions. The mechanical, inept lawyer is depicted as a giant wind-up toy. Neyestani himself looks especially fragile, shattering like porcelain when a judge reprimands him. “I really tried to avoid portraying myself as a hero. I was fearful, so anxious. Some periods when I was in jail I was crying hopelessly,” said Neyestani. “I was just waiting for my destiny to happen to me.”

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Neyestani doesn’t mean “destiny” in the romantic what-I-was-put-on-earth-for way, but rather the more ominous if-you-don’t-fight-back-this-is-what-will-happen-to-you way. He is talking about the collision courses that life sets you on, outside of your power. Yet, in Kafkaesque fashion, he keeps drawing and satirizing, however hopeless it may seem. “The whole point of life is coping with this destiny and trying to change it,” he said.

After the event in Brooklyn, Neyestani had no other plans to promote his graphic novel in the United States. An arranged book tour on the East Coast had to be nixed. Neyestani was supposed to have arrived over a week earlier, but his visa was delayed.

Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw.