Mirrors and Shadows of Burma and Iran: Amir and Khalil, Zahra’s Paradise – a book review by Kyi May Kaung
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Mirrors and Shadows of Burma and Iran: Amir and Khalil, Zahra’s Paradise – a book review by Kyi May Kaung

Amir and Khalil, Zahra’s Paradise

A graphic novel

First Second Books

First edition 2011

ISBN 978-1-59643-642-8

The evening of the book reading, we were stuck in rush hour traffic, and tiptoed in as Amir, in tan slacks and an old green sweater, was talking in front of the black book shelves and wine racks at the Book Cellar on Lincoln Square in Chicago.  I sat down on the only empty chair, while the bookstore attendants unfolded more chairs silently behind me.  Our hosts went to the front row, where seats had been reserved for them.

At once, listening to Amir talk about “cranes as the hand of God” and public hangings in Iranian cities from construction cranes, I thought, coming from Burma as I do:  I know exactly what this man is talking about when he speaks about Iran.  Amir’s light brown hands, with their long fingers, wove elegantly in the air as he spoke of horrible atrocities.

Just the week before I had decided not to buy any more books, but sighed and gave up at the end of the presentation, quickly bought a copy and had it signed.

Zahra’s Paradise, a graphic novel or manga, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manga is a fictional account of a mother, Zahra’s search for her missing son after the clampdown following the stolen election of 2009 and the protests immediately following the election.  Zahra is the Persian word for “flower”, and Zahra’s Paradise is the name of a real cemetery north of Teheran.

I’ve only passed through Teheran once in 1969, on my way to an economics diploma course in Warsaw, Poland, from Burma.  I was only at the airport for about 45 minutes.  All I remember is a dry, bare, tan landscape with a mid-sized hill or mountain in the distance.  In Teheran we changed from PanAm to the Polish airline Lot.  At the time, with the exception of medical doctors, the only places Burmese students could go for post-grad studies was to the Soviet Union and its satellite countries.  “These buggers know what they are doing,” a family friend who had an Inner Temple law degree from England said, referring to the military junta or Burmese Revolutionary Council, “Why don’t they get an Eastern Bloc-trained doctor to cut them open.”

Zahra’s Paradise is the first graphic novel I have read, not counting the superman and cowboy comics I read as a child in the fifties in then-democratic Burma.  The Burmese military staged its first coup in 1962.

I’ve heard of Maus, and now Persepolis, but haven’t actually read them yet.

Zahra’s Paradise is not a rapid page turner.  It’s not meant to be.  Instead, I found myself reading it slowly, partly to savor the beautiful writing, partly because every frame reminded me of similar stories in Burma and partly because the artwork by Khalil is so excellent.  Without color, he manages to convey character, actions and emotions vividly, though the Wikipedia article cited above says some Japanese manga are in color.  I imagine they are part of the Japanese woodblock print tradition.

In terms of the images, the most memorable are:

  1.  i. “The judicial system” composed of conveyor belts which started out as tongues, on which those caught in the system line up interminably – weaving in and out of the Ayatollah’s giant mouths, ending up as ground meat coming out of a hand-cranked meat grinder.  In Burmese, we call orders and “laws” coming from above ta chet hlut ah meint, or “orders released once” coming out of someone’s mouth.
  2. ii.  The other unforgettable image is an M.C. Escher-like http://www.mcescher.com/Gallery/gallery.htm
  3. drawing of endless steps and stairs, and doors, some going “the wrong way” or at right angles to 90 degrees, like Fred Astaire walking on walls and stairs, in a nightmare sequence.

In terms of words, every word is beautiful and well-chosen, the most spectacular the mother’s long drawn out cry of pain and anguish, an over the top aria that forms the climax of the story.  This would make a great opera, like I Lombardo.  I should not say more.

In Chicago over 4 days, I attended 3 different presentations by Amir, one a “what would you do if you wanted to be really nasty?” session with a Northeastern Illinois University audience.  I am told the Mid-West is noted for its hospitality and optimism and I have certainly found it so.  I could feel born-Americans straining to be “mean” while those of us who have experienced more totalitarian systems prompted them from the sidelines.  I did not get the sense, as I sometimes do, that here is an author giving a pat little presentation, with canned jokes like olives spattered about.

This is really a Dickensian novel with well-rounded characters and a wide and ambitious scope, masquerading as an “easy” graphic novel.  Go buy it, read it and keep it.

Amir and Khalil use only their first names.  About Khalil, all I could find was one lovely blue eye on the Zahra’s Paradise website.  http://www.zahrasparadise.com/lang/en/about

Kyi May Kaung, originally from Burma, holds a doctorate in political economy and writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry.