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Sun April 28, 2013
Author Interviews

Iran's Political Scene Is Sketchy For Cartoonists

Originally published on Wed May 1, 2013 12:32 pm

Iranian newspapers are rife with cartoons. They are a tradition, and play a big role voicing criticism of the country's authoritarian regime.

Increasingly, though, Iranian cartoonists have been imprisoned, received death threats, or gone into exile because of their work.

Omid Memarian was a journalist in Iran. Arrested in 2004 for his writing, he was taken to prison, tortured and forced into a confession of guilt on national television. He fled to the United States in 2005, attended graduate school for journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and continued to work as a journalist.

Now he's edited a book published by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Sketches of Iran: A Glimpse from the Front Lines of Human Rights consists of 40 essays of political persecution paired with political cartoons from artists inside and outside Iran.

Memarian joined Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, to talk about the role of political cartoons in his home country.


Interview Highlights

On the history of political cartoons in Iran

"It's a tradition in the Iranian media that each magazine, each newspaper, has a political cartoon, a bunch of political cartons every single day. ... Newspapers basically fight to have the best cartoonists for their newspapers."

On how cartoons reach a larger audience

"I can write something and my audience is limited, but people from different ages and different social economic classes, they can understand the meaning of a cartoon. ... So I think in many ways cartoons are the best way to tell people a story."

On the life of a cartoonist in Iran

"Many cartoonists in Iran have been arrested for the cartoons that they have drawn for newspapers, and the reason is because the Iranian government knows the power and influence of political cartoons. And for that, many political cartoonists have tried to become ambiguous and communicate a message in a way that it makes it hard for the government to come after them. ... After the election [in 2009], we saw a intense crackdown against journalists, civil society activists, lawyers."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

You're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Next up, Betto Arcos brings us the latest music from Cuba.

But first, let's turn to Iran. Political cartoons play an important role in Iranian newspapers. Traditionally, they're one of the few expressions of opposition to the authoritarian regime. Increasingly, cartoonists have been imprisoned, received death threats or gone into exile because of their work.

Omid Memarian was a journalist blogger in Iran. Arrested in 2004, he was taken to prison and tortured and forced into a confession of guilt on national television. He fled the country to continue to work as a journalist here in the U.S.

Now, he's edited a book. It's called "Sketches of Iran," and it's published by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. It consists of 40 essays paired with political cartoons from artists inside and outside of the country. Omid begins by telling us the role of political caricatures in Iran.

OMID MEMARIAN: It's a tradition in the Iranian media that each magazine, each newspaper has a political cartoon, a bunch of political cartoons every single day. And that's one of the first things people see when they buy a copy of a newspaper. Newspapers basically fight to have the best cartoonist for their newspapers.

LYDEN: So you yourself are a print journalist.

MEMARIAN: Mm-hmm.

LYDEN: Is there something you think that a political cartoon can do in terms of political impact that writing alone has a more difficult time establishing?

MEMARIAN: I can write something, and my audience is limited. But people from different ages and different socioeconomic classes can understand the meaning of a cartoon much more deeper and intimate than a story.

LYDEN: How difficult a time is a political cartoonist likely to have in Iran?

MEMARIAN: Many cartoonists in Iran have been arrested for their cartoons that they're drawing for newspapers, and the reason is that the Iranian government knows the power and influence of political cartoons. And for that, many political cartoonists have tried to become more ambiguous and communicate a message in a way that makes it hard for the government to go after them.

How did the book itself come to be?

After the election, we saw an intense crackdown against journalists, civil society activists, lawyers, but I notice that cartoons are very effective in communicating to people. And it would be a really good idea to gather a bunch of cartoons and couple them with commentaries about the themes of those cartoons.

LYDEN: Omid, let's start with the cover of this book. We see a giant face covering half the book. And the lips have bitten off the head of a casual person who's reading the newspaper. What's going on here?

MEMARIAN: This monstrous face is basically the environment that we live in now in Iran, the environment that journalists and bloggers and everybody who creates any kind of content. Even the people who are interested in reading newspapers live in an environment of fear and intimidation and constant threats.

LYDEN: And what about Touka Neyestani, the cartoonist? What can you tell us about him?

MEMARIAN: Touka, he had started drawing cartoons, like, 15 years ago. In the cartoonist community in Iran, he's one of the major pillars.

LYDEN: So he's living in Canada.

MEMARIAN: He lives in Canada now. He had to flee the country because he could not do what he loved to do. He was constantly under threats. And a few times, he was questioned by the authorities, and once, he was detained. The best thing was to leave the country and continue his work as a cartoonist for other publications out of the country.

And now we see, for example, these cartoonists, thanks to the Internet, they can continue their work. They draw cartoons for different publications out of the country, and millions of people inside the country can still use their work.

LYDEN: Let's look at another image. This one is an essay called "Neema's Wish." It's paired with an image of a female lawyer. Her wrists are in manacles. She's holding the scale of justice in her hand. And what is her name?

MEMARIAN: Her name is Nasrin Sotoudeh.

LYDEN: And I understand that she was your lawyer in your own case.

MEMARIAN: She was my lawyer. Initially, I was sentenced two years and a half in prison. But because of her defense, I was acquitted from all the charges. It's very unfortunate that she's in prison now. She received a sentence for six years and a half just for defending her client.

LYDEN: Hmm. When did that happen?

MEMARIAN: Three years ago.

LYDEN: There's another cartoon in here, and this is a portrait of Mir Hossein Mousavi. He was prime minister of Iran in the 1980s, presidential candidate in 2009, and we see him sitting beneath a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and he is chained to the ballot box, which is itself chained, and it says 2009 election on it.

MEMARIAN: Mir Hossein Mousavi, the presidential candidate, since the election, he has been under house arrest for questioning the Iranian government for the result of the election, almost three years now.

LYDEN: So you have an essay here by his daughter, Zahra, called "The Collage that is My Father." Tell us about this essay.

MEMARIAN: It was very difficult to find Mousavi's daughter in Iran. We know that she is under a lot of pressure not to talk to the media. We knew that she does not write for any publications, and - but we tried, and it paid off.

LYDEN: It's very, very poignant. And she talks about her father's patience. She says: He is so patient, it would frustrate us. He would tell us that he even forgets his deepest hurts within the first half-hour and for us to practice forgetting too. He always volunteered to ask for forgiveness, and he counseled patience. We must pass and endure patience, patience, patience. Is that hard for you to hear - patience, patience, patience?

MEMARIAN: It's been very emotional. Even though I try to distance myself from my work, this is not just news. These are real people.

LYDEN: That was Omid Memarian, who edited the book, "Sketches of Iran." That last cartoon of the candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi is the work of Nikahang Kowsar. He fled Iran in 2000 after being imprisoned for his work and receiving a death threat. He drew six of the cartoons for the collection, so we invited him into the studio to tell us about the life of someone who does political caricature for a living in Iran.

NIKAHANG KOWSAR: A cartoonist in the city of Iraq in central Iran drew a member of parliament with a soccer jersey, and the court sentenced him to 25 lashes for that simple cartoon. Anybody who dares drawing whatever he wants to draw is attempting suicide. It's real dangerous. The problem is that if you want to draw an Ayatollah, you can. If you want to draw a member of the military who's actually, in a way, running the country, you cannot. If you want to make fun of the president, you have to face a lot of problems.

LYDEN: In the book, we have a collection of 40 political cartoons. In a way, it takes us inside Iran in a way that I think even news footage cannot do. We wonder who these people are and what their circumstances are. You leave the imagination linger and wander there, I think.

KOWSAR: I hadn't thought about this part of it, but I hope that we'll have more collections that would talk about what actually happened to the country and where we start and where we are now and possibly where we could be in the future.

LYDEN: That's cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar. He worked alongside Omid Memarian to compile all the cartoons for this collection. To see these political caricatures, go to our website at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.