Zahra's Paradise

Amir, illustrated by Khalil

First Second




272 Pages



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Set in the aftermath of Iran's fraudulent elections of 2009, Zahra's Paradise is the fictional story of the search for Mehdi, a young protestor who has vanished into an extrajudicial twilight zone. What's keeping his memory from being obliterated is not the law. It is the grit and guts of his mother, who refuses to surrender her son to fate, and the tenacity of his brother, a blogger, who fuses tradition and technology to explore and explode the void in which Mehdi has vanished.

Zahra's Paradise weaves together fiction and real people and events. As the world witnessed the aftermath of Iran's fraudulent elections, through YouTube videos, on Twitter, and in blogs, this story came into being. The global response to this gripping tale has been passionate—an echo of the global outcry during the political upheaval of the summer of 2009.


Praise for Zahra's Paradise

"Zahra's Paradise . . . makes the distinction between good and evil too stark: Mehdi comes off as an angel, not a teenager. But Khalil's brilliant and nuanced illustrations go a long way to correct this heavy-handedness; he manages to convey a range of emotions in a feature as simple as Mrs. Alavi's eyebrows."—Megan Buskey, The New York Times Book Review

"Like Maus and Persepolis, Zahra's Paradise puts a human face on a time of grief and unrest. Unlike those books, the time in question is now."—NPR

"A heartbreaking story . . . not just about tyranny, loss and grief, but a celebration of the will to live."—Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran

"Gorgeous and compelling. Zahra's Paradise is more than a graphic novel. It is a testament to the unbreakable will of a people ready to bear any cost to shake off the yoke of oppression."—Reza Aslan, author of No god but God

"In this searing graphic novel . . . readers are immersed in the wrenching reality of life in the oppressive regime of contemporary Iran. His mother and brother (our blogger narrator) search with unflagging devotion for nineteen-year-old Mehdi, who disappeared after a street protest against Mahmoud Ahmandinejad's autocratic rule. Their search reveals horrific conditions in secret prisons, including male rape by prison officials, and unspeakable corruption at the highest levels of governmental authority. The authors relive the numbing horror of their narrative with vivid portraits of a range of everyday Iranian citizens, from a generous, foul-mouthed cab driver to the grieving mother's chain-smoking, tough-talking, huge-hearted friend. The novel ends in personal tragedy, but also in undaunted will to resist human rights abuses everywhere. Appendices round out the story with factual information about Iran's 2009 presidential elections, execution rates in Iran and elsewhere, victims' testimony, and a heartbreaking tiny-print list of 16,901 individuals 'executed, shot in demonstrations, or assassinated since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.' Definitely abounding with mature themes and language, this is an incendiary call to human rights awareness and activism."—Children's Literature

"As in Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, here the personal Iran reveals the political. We meet Zahra and Hassan, mother and son, as they search for younger son Mehdi, who has gone missing. All fear his capture by the Secret Police in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election . . . It should be noted that Zahra is not just the titular mother: Zahra's Paradise is a real, million-grave cemetery in Tehran, and Zahra Kazemi was an actual Canadian-Iranian journalist who was beaten to death in an Iranian prison. Khalil's excellent art has been compared with Satrapi's, but it more resembles Craig Thompson's with a hefty dose of M.C. Escher. Both creators of this collage, fictionalized from true stories, are ex-pat Iranians working anonymously . . . Some violence and sex-related content may limit the age appropriateness. Highly recommended for older teens and up seeking insights into the Middle East."—Library Journal

"This collected web comic resembles Persepolis in its loathing for the current Iranian regime, but these creators (anonymous for political reasons) focus their story via an urgent crisis within one family, as young Mehdi's mother and brother search for him after he vanishes during the government's crackdown on protests against fraudulent national elections in 2009. Now no one in authority will admit knowing what happened to him. From the testimony of the angry but fearful people Medhi's friends encounter, from cab drivers to former aristocrats, it's clear that Mehdi is just one of a disaffected majority whose existence the people in power must deny, since they can maintain the official version of righteousness only by rape, torture, and murder. The authors successfully generalize from one case to the dreadful condition of all Iranians. Medhi's mother is named Zahra, and Zahra's Paradise is also a huge cemetery near Tehran; the woman's graveside rant condemns everyone who won't stand up for justice. Khalil's art is a mix of confident caricature, clean cartoony panels, and montage that's remarkably adept at capturing all kinds of action and emotion. The end effect is a powerful look at a people's struggle that goes beyond politicized tropes."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Amir, illustrated by Khalil

  • Amir is an Iranian-American human rights activist, journalist and documentary filmmaker. He has lived and worked in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Afghanistan. His essays and articles have appeared far and wide in the press.

    Khalil's work as a fine artist has been much praised. He has been cartooning since he was very young. Zahra's Paradise is his first graphic novel. Both Amir and Khalil have chosen to remain anonymous for political reasons.

  • Khalil Khalil



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