An Iranian Metamorphosis by Mana Neyestani, translated by Ghazal Mosadeq
One unintentionally wrong word uttered in a children’s cartoon lost Mana Neyestani his job, his freedom, and nearly his life. As editor of the children’s pages for Iran’s Iran-Jomeh, Neyestani drew his recurring 10-year-old character confronting a cockroach that replies with a single Azeri word: “Namana.” As Neyestani explains to his editor, namana is a word he uses “often … whenever [he] can’t think of something to say”; namana is a crossover word so often used by Farsi speakers that many are unaware of its Azeri roots.
Not so the newspaper’s readers. First a few Azeri parents called the office, protesting the implication that the Azerbaijanis – an ethnic minority in Iran – are being labeled cockroaches. Those few calls escalated to larger student demonstrations, then multiplied into mass riots so violent that people died, with larger numbers seriously injured.
Neyestani and his chief editor are picked up for questioning, and don’t return home that night – and for many, many nights. They’re sent to the infamous Evin Prison, north of Tehran, confined solo, then duo, then with others. They survive in limbo for months, and bear witness to lawless inhumanity. Surprisingly, cartoonist and editor are granted a temporary release. Rather than waiting for Neyestani’s impending return to prison, he and his wife choose life together on the run. Their decision to flee sets in motion an uncertain odyssey as far-flung as China, never sure of friends, promises, or … tomorrow.
Neyestani’s experiences are ‘you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up’-surreal: summarizing five months of his life into a tiny prescribed box as his interrogator looms, watching the beatings of an old man who refuses to let go of his bag filled with photographs, learning that a fellow inmate deals crack cocaine in order to satisfy his sexual appetites, and more. In spite of such dire circumstances, Neyestani miraculously never loses sight of his sense of humor: his cartoon self flips over a panel to interrupt another cockroach story; a guard tells him not to “fly and break the frame of the page from excitement” when he learns of his impending freedom; his undying cockroach companion makes unexpected appearances; he cleverly channels the Malaysian cartoonist Lat while in Kuala Lampur.
Like its cockroach-ridden namesake – Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka – An Iranian Metamorphosis captures the dangerous incomprehensibility of the absurd. Here, the qualifying addition of “Iranian” is both indictment and testimony against a closed, censored society. That said, worldwide headlines have proven that even in the so-called free world, cartoons turn deadly – remember Charlie Hebdo.
Thankfully, Neyestani lives … and continues to expose, criticize, illuminate, and entertain.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2014 (United States)