I first met exiled Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani at Etonnants Voyageurs, an annual literary festival of grand scale set in St. Malo on the rugged coast of Brittany, France. Neyestani was seated – or more accurately, hiding – behind a stack of his own recently published graphic novel, Une Métamorphose Iranienne (An Iranian Metamorphosis). Even his stylish signature fedora seemed equally a way to remain out of view. However, France is a country that celebrates serious graphic novels, and Neyestani made mandatory appearances on different panels where he spoke seriously and firmly about the state of censorship in Iran, the complex nature of the country’s politics and ways in which cartoons make a difference.
It is unclear whether Neyestani was always painfully shy and anti-social, but it would not be a stretch to say that he is marked by his many months of solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin prison, notorious for housing political and intellectual prisoners. The innocent use of an Azeri word by a cockroach character in one of his cartoons led to rioting amidst ethnic Azeris in Iran. Police opened fire on the protesters, and some were killed. Neyestani was imprisoned without trial.
Neyestani’s autobiographical graphic novel begins in the labyrinthine prison and continues with the cartoonist’s journey to find refuge in a friendly country after fleeing Iran upon being granted a provisional release from prison. After endless paperwork, time and money spent on visas, he and his wife traveled from Dubai to China, and finally to Malaysia, where the graphic novel ends.
The visa rejections continued, however, until France finally accepted Neyestani’s plea for asylum. He agreed to chat with me about his work and life from Paris where he now lives with his wife, Mansourieh, and their beloved cat. - Bhakti Shringarpure
Bhakti Shringarpure: Lets 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.
Bhakti Shringarpure: I think you take the theme of these internal racisms and prejudices within Iran very seriously in your book. You spend a few chapters on the Afghan detainees and how badly they are treated. What’s their story? They seemed the most dehumanized.
Mana Neyestani: It is an old story in Iran and began with Afghans' immigration during the war in eighties. Most of the Afghans were doing cheap work or black work or the construction in Iran. They had been living in poverty and, you know, in this condition, the crime rate inevitably goes up. I try to explain why some of the Iranians do not feel OK about Afghans (I have always been against this perception), though the racism is not quite explainable. Racism is racism, after all. Anyway, there is discrimination towards Afghans on many different fronts. And I saw it even in the jail. Most of them were decent workers, some of them illegal workers. Their employers, who know this, use them and, after the construction is completed, they pass them to the police to avoid paying them. You can feel a “hierarchy of respect" in the prison. The Afghans, as far as I saw, were on the bottom. It was and is amazing to me how thin the border between oppressed and oppressor really is. People easily switch their positions.
Bhakti Shringarpure: But you always remained an observer? Were you afraid of who you might become as you saw prison life unfold before you?
Mana Neyestani: I have never been a "social guy" in my life. Most of the time, I spend my time in my room and work. Same story in the prison. I kept my distance and watched things, but sometimes being neutral means to accompany the oppressive side. I've tried, really tried, not to be neutral, at least. Sometimes you are not aware of the situation, but as you figure out, there is no excuse.
Bhakti Shringarpure: You have many characters that are part of your mental landscape while in solitude. Who is the starving eye-patch cat?
Mana Neyestani: That cat was a way to help the storytelling more than a metaphorical figure. There were a lot of cats in Evin yard, but I invented the eye-patch one. As you might remember, in a scene in front of the prison bakery I figure out that we were located just near Ward 209, which is supposed to be mysterious and, I think, a more hidden and secured place [in the prison]. All that was true. I dramatized the scene with the cat. But also I love cats. I have one, and maybe unconsciously felt freedom by seeing them. They freely come and go without any limits. Made me so envious!
Bhakti Shringarpure: Another question on style: In your book, there is this notion of "crossing the frame"; there seem to be images IN a frame and OUT of the frame? Also, sometimes references appear such as, "What an idiot, you've crossed the frame again" and "cockroach jumped off the page." What do these mean?
Mana Neyestani: Yes, kind of postmodernist play. I like to play with my media - its potentials and limits. It's a comic book, and I like my audience to feel a different experience from cinema or pure literature.
Bhakti Shringarpure: How do you want the experience to be different?
Mana Neyestani: How can I put it? Let me give an example. When you are watching a Fellini movie, you are seeing something that is impossible to experience in other art forms. Fellini made it just for film. Same is true when you read a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. This is because they were stories made for their media. It's untranslatable to other art forms. You could do it, but something would be missed. I would not claim that I am doing the same same, but I am trying to find the limitations and potential of my media: comics. I have frames, pictures, dialogue balloons – so I try to use them?. And I did it before in my "Persian" comic books, which I published in Iran. In one of them, the main character is strangled by a killer, and he takes the page number and throws it at the killer's face. These kinds of things are not that new. I remember in Looney Toons there were lots of jokes like that. The work of Tex Avery and his peers still seems so fresh and innovative.
Bhakti Shringarpure: Your depiction of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) seemed harsh. Are you criticizing UNHCR and how that system works? In your book, the UNHCR personnel only offer you a tiny sheet of paper to tell your life’s story. Did this symbolize disrespect and disinterest in individual stories? Is that an accurate interpretation of this scene?
Mana Neyestani: I mentioned before about a tendency towards "dehumanizing" people, or having identity attacked by the systems and situations. And it is not just living in a dictatorship like Iran. As a "secondary citizen of the new world" you might face it many times, so it is not just about the UN. If you go to the Prefecture de Police in France, probably you’ll see it there, or in other situations. People are simply treated like shit. They give you a number, then you are wandering in different rooms. Suddenly you turn to the number that you carry. You are just a number, waiting to be called...
Bhakti Shringarpure: True, it’s really a sick state of affairs, and it’s so well designed and the categories are so compartmentalized, it leaves no room for change or revolt.
Mana Neyestani: I am sure these feelings are not just for asylum seekers. Even ordinary citizens could experience it in different places. So I see the terms of metamorphosis as more than what is happening to us within tyranny. It is global. We all feel sometimes that our humanity, our identity, has been attacked – changed, distorted. Sometimes by bureaucracy. Sometimes in the name of socialism or communism. Sometimes capitalism. In short, I blame the situation, not just an organization. And we all are responsible for this situation being created. The regime which forces people to abandon their motherland, the people who lie and fake a case to get refuge, the organizations who view us suspiciously just because we are Middle Eastern, especially Iranian.
Bhakti Shringarpure: Can you speak a bit about your daily work? I see that you upload a new image on Facebook almost every day. It’s something political. I don't always understand the captions because I don’t read Farsi. What are you up to?
Mana Neyestani: I draw cartoons (mostly political) for two Iranian online magazines in the UK and the Netherlands – 10 pieces for each one – and I do it in two different genres. One is more sophisticated, without dialogue and description. Though the themes are inspired by Iranian affairs, they can be understood by a non-Iranian audience as well. The second is a comic series entitled "Dargir Family" (Involved Family). It is about an middle class Iranian family that is involved with social and political issues in Iran. They have dialogues that are more local and more popular?. And sometimes it's difficult to translate them – you have to know some stories, background, jokes. But for Iranian audiences, "Dargir Family" is easier to understand than the pure visual works?. And I am also doing another comic, which is fiction this time. It is a sequel to the books that I have published in Iran. Maybe I will translate this one if I find a publisher.
Bhakti Shringarpure: What were the books you published in Iran? What were they about?
Mana Neyestani: They were published between 2000 and 2004 (Khatami's period) in Iran, and the copies are all done. The authority did not renew the publishing permits. You know, you have to have permission from the Ministry of Culture to publish your book. They have a commission that reads it and censors it. So the permissions were canceled after Ahmadinejad came into power.
Bhakti Shringarpure: On Facebook, you have a fan page with over 68,000 “likes,” yet another Artist page with many more thousands “liking” it again, and then you have had to make three different accounts because you are overloaded with friend requests. Why are you so famous?
Mana Neyestani: I am not sure if it is considered "fame" such as “fame” is applied in reference to Johnny Depp or Lady Gaga.
Bhakti Shringarpure: I think for a cartoonist, it is probably proportionate.
Mana Neyestani: If you are not interested in cartoons or political cartoons, or political issues in Iran, you are not likely to care about me. After the 2009 post-Presidential election crisis in Iran, I did tons of cartoons in support of the protesters resisting the fraud. I began to retell their stories, especially in "Dargir Family." Some people found themselves in my works. I think since 2009, the rate of the members [on Facebook] began to grow faster. I am not sure what percentage of these 68,000 are really active and see the work, especially the part living inside Iran with heavy [Internet] filters put up by the regime.
Bhakti Shringarpure: Right. You must feel some responsibility, though, if you can reach so many people.
Mana Neyestani: Responsibility? I don’t need Facebook friends to increase my sense of responsibility. Especially when I made a cartoon that unintentionally ended up getting some people killed. Sometimes it is so hard to find balance – between feeling responsibility and doing my job and avoiding the self-censorship. I always say that an artist should be able to say everything freely without any limitations, insofar as he or she would not step on somebody else’s rights, but I cannot do it myself. You know, my goal is to make my audience think, so I need to have an audience first. I want us to live in a better world, a peaceful one. This is just like the things that Miss Worlds say but I mean it!
Bhakti Shringarpure: These deaths weigh on you. It seems you will never recover from this?
Mana Neyestani: I will never be able to delete this thing that happened. The only thing you are able to do is to try to cope with the situation. To get along, feed your beetle and move forward. Ok that’s very corny. I hope I win the crown with that last sentence.
Bhakti Shringarpure: Well, you certainly have my vote!