Skip to main content
Outdated Browser

For the best experience using our website, we recommend upgrading your browser to a newer version or switching to a supported browser.

More Information

Graphic Literature

An Iranian Metamorphosis

By Mana Neyestani
Translated from Persian by Ghazal Mosadeq
From cartoonist Mana Neyestami, a graphic memoir of censorship and prison in Iran.
[One morning George Samsa woke up from an anxious dream and discovered...] [He'd been changed into a monstrous verminous bug!] Mana: No! No! The metamorphosis starts with a cockroach too. But my story is slightly different.
[I started as an editorial cartoonist when I was 16. After that, I drew cartoons for many political, reformist, and opposition newspapers but I had no trouble until the spring of 2000. Then, after 17 reformist newspapers were banned and I was out of a job for a while, I quit drawing political cartoons and worked for kid's and young adult's magazines. Some of my colleagues who endured interrogations advised me that my name came up a few times and I had to watch out. Working for kid's magazines lifted my spirits, plus it seemed less risky (well, I thought not risky at all...) Boy! Can I be Wrong! In 2004, the chief editor of Iran Jomeh, the weekend magazine leisure section of Iran newspaper, appointed me editor of the pages for children. For two years, everything went well except that in 2005 the government, which funded our newspaper, got radically religious. And our management got hard assed. But the management wasn't truly in our hair because we dealt with leisure not politics. Every Saturday morning I'd come up with a topic for satire or science writing and on Sunday nights I'd do the illustrations and send it to the layout designer. That Saturday didn't seem different from any other Saturday...] -What an idiot! You've crossed the frame again!
[I was thinking about what shit I should afflict my 10-year-old cartoon character, Soheil, with. It was May and Tehran had started to get warm...] Soheil: Admit it! You run our of ideas! Mana: You wish! I'll get you in big trouble this time! Just wait. Soheil: What are you drawing? It's not a...
Soheil: A cockroach! I hate them! Ow! You are not throwing a cockroach at me! I'll get back at you. Don't forget. I'll get back at you. Mana: I'm going to do something really funny and call it how to fight a cockroach. [But when I wasn't looking a cockroach jumped off the page.]
[Ran to the backdoor of the apartment. Skittered downstairs. Got onto the street. Hiked all the way to the Azarbayjan provinces to the cities of Tabriz and Ardabil. Just to form my future, and I knew nothing about it.]
[A good week was passed from the date that issue was published. I kissed Mansoureh goodbye I put my week's work on a CD and ran to Iran Jomeh's office...was feeling great At the office Mehrdad, the editor, called me] Mehrdad: Mana! Before you go to the layout room I want a word with you! Mana: Sure!
Mehrdad: A couple of Azeri parents called and complained about the cockroach thing. I didn't pay close attention, but we have to watch out for ethnic sensitivities, you know. Mana: Ethnic sensitivities?! Mehrdad: Oh yes. In one of the cartoons a cockroach tosses out an Azeri word. Mana: You can't mean the namana! Are you kidding me? I often myself use the term whenever I can't get something I say. Namana? Mehrdad: I know. It happens. Just be aware of it from now on.
[Three or four days later I was surfing the internet when the phone rang.] Mana: Oh Hi Ali! How are you? Anything wrong again? Did the higher-ups censor another piece? -Dear Sir! Stop cursing for a second for God's sake. There was no such intention! - You asshole! Are you calling me a cunt? Ali:We've been getting angry phone calls since this morning. Some people with Azeri accents are calling us and they soud really mad, most of them cursing. Haven't you seen the pictures of Azeri students' demonstrations online? Mana: I've never heard of such a thing but just give me a sec to check the news websites. My God!
Crowds: We condemn groundless insults about the honorable Turkish people. [I could not believe that people were demonstrating against the Iranian newspaper and they were doing it because of just one word in my cartoon: Namana! The demonstrations were growing by the hour.]
[In Iran Jomeh's office we had an ad hoc meeting.] -Unfortunately some group has photocopied the cartoon and has distributed it in Azeri cities. It's been misunderstood. The Azeris are offended because they think they have been called cockroaches. It's got rough. Some newspaper offices have been set in fire. Mana: I'm terribly sorry. It never occurred to me that it was offensive. If it helps I can resign. - No if you resign it means that I agree it was an insult. We've already apologized a couple of times formally and informally. - I'm drafting my third apology to be published in Iran Jomeh this week. I hope that calms things down. Mana: I again apologize. I'm sorry. [I stood up to go. Reza, the magazine's photographer called me] Reza: Oh by the way. Just to be on the safe side, once you go home hide any alcohol if you have any. In case the police raid you... Mana: Police raid my apartment...? Reza: Oh I don't want to scare you. Hopefully, all will go well, but realistically, the case is starting to lean toward state security stuff.
[Following several days, the demonstrations spread from universities to the streets. Tabriz Bazaar got on strike. The situation was getting worse.] -Hello? Oh, Hi, Mana? Had a call from the ministry of information. They wanted both of us there for questioning in the morning. Mansoureh: Anything wrong? Mana: No...Nothing important. [Very much like any other night Mansoureh and I went for a walk. If only I knew what was waiting for me I would have carved the picture of moon on my brain. Just as it was without a grid of lines.]
[The next day Mehrdad called to let me know that the questioning was changed from the ministry of information to the main prosecution office.] Mana: Mansoureh! Take all of our booze and throw it out or give it to someone. Mansoureh: I'm scared! Mana: Oh It's nothing sweetheart. [I was lying. For nothing they wouldn't have called us in. I knew a summons to go there was bad news.] Mehrdad: By the way they suggested you say you have Azeri blood from one of your parents. That might calm the Azeris down a bit. Mana: Sure. Since it is well known that my father was a famous poem from Kerman I can say my mother is Azeri. Mehrdad: Fuck this traffic jam. [We arrived there an hour late.] - We are here.
Mehrdad: Hello Sir. We are Ghasemfar and Neyestani. We were asked here about the Iran case. - Second floor on your left. They are waiting for you. - Mr. Neyestani! Mr. Ghasemfar! Welcome. [He was waiting to receive us.] -My name is Maleki. I'm sorry about what's happened. It's complex and we need to work together to solve it. Now sit down here while I go to have a word with the judge.
Mehrdad: He must be from the Intelligence ministry and 'Maleki' is only an alias, I'm sure. I'm sure he is convincing the judge to detain us since he can't do it based on any law. Judge: I don't see that you've broken any law in your case. But some people have used this drawing as an excuse to cause unrest in Azerbaijan. So I have no other choice but...to put you under temporary detention...for a month. Mehrdad: One whole month?
[We passed the main door. Got to the building 209: the detention center of the ministry of Intelligence.] -take this before you enter! You have to put these blinders on. detention rules! Mana: !
- Take off your blindfold. [It was Maleki's voice.] Maleki: Salam, Mr. Neyestani. I have to repeat how sorry I am about this. We believe there was a misunderstanding. But the people of Azerbaijan think otherwise. Please sit here. Put it all down. Don't skip any details. Write why you drew that cartoon and why you used a Turkish word. There is lots of time and paper. The more extensive and convincing the more It will help your case.
Maleki(reading): And since summer was approaching and the weather was getting warmer and our house was full of cockroaches, I decided to make cockroaches the theme for that issue of the kids' magazine...the word 'namana' is always used in Farsi. I didn't have its Turkish roots in mind. Maleki: your answer isn't convincing Mr. Neyestani. Mana: Not my fault if reality isn't convincing. Maleki: Mr. Neyestani! Don't forget we are not against you. But the Turkish people of Azarbaijan are. They believe that whole thing was designed to humiliate Turks and their culture. They won't accept any other explanation. We'll continue our conversation tomorrow. Do try to find more solid reasons. You can take the pen and the papers with you. You are also allowed to keep your glasses. Mana: What do I have to write in my cell? Maleki: Write about the Iranian cartoonists that you know. Write anything you know about them. This is a unique chance for us to explore your information and complete your records.
[I had to write whatever I knew about my fellow cartoonists. But not being a social person I fortunately knew next to nothing about any of them, so I decided to fill the pages with some gossip, or even words about the quality of their cartoons] Mana (writing): For instance Mr. SH is a good example. Since his hands shake severely so now shaky lines are his style...Or Mr. M who is a paranoid type who knows nothing about drawing and sketching but thinks he is a big shot. Also, most of the times he picks his nose in public. [The fact that I didn't write anything important about people made me feel I wasn't a traitor.]
[At that time government forces open fired on angry protesters in Azeri cities and caused bloodshed.]
Mana(having a nightmare): No! No! No! - What are you doing? get up! Don't turn toward me. put your blinders on. come out. Maleki: Good morning Mr. Heyestani. Sorry I have bad news.
One of the wall tiles had fallen off and someone had done a childish drawing on the wall.] Maleki: Last night our guys completely lost control over some Azeri cities and police opened fire on people. Some protesters were killed and there were major financial losses. Angry people destroyed all the branches of the Persian Bank. Our guys let them do whatever they wanted hoping they would calm down. The high rank people in the government are all upset with you because they consider you as the main culprit of all the unrest. Mana: Me?! I've been here under interrogation for the last seven days! Maleki: The sole reason people were killed was because of your work. Here's a list of dissident journalists.
Maleki: Hey! Don't turn toward me. I'm going to bring you a cellmate.
[And a few minutes later they brought him]
Maleki: Step in. Take your blinders off. Don't keep turning toward my face. Don't look at me.
Shoghie: Hello! My name's Shoghie
Mana: Hello
Shoghie: I'm Azeri! I've been arrested in a demonstration in front of the parliament
Mana: I'm the one who caused the demonstrations
[For a minute I thought they were putting General Custer with the Sioux]
Shoghie: See you have a book there. Can I read it, too?
Mana: Sure, pal.
Shoghie: Only one cartoon or one journalist is not the issue. The problem is the history of ignorance that Persian intellectuals always have had toward Turkish speaking Iranians. For many years it's been there...
Shoghie: ...in all the jokes and TV comedies that belittle Azeris
Shoghie: They don't let us teach our mother tongue in schools. They replace the Turkish name of our streets with Farsi names. And a lot of other prejudice too.
Mana: Mehrdad and I as journalists oppose this and are on your side... I don't know why we're the scapegoat here.
Shoghie: We have no personal problems with you or any other journalist but on the way toward the ideal there's a good possibility some people get crunched under the train of vicissitudes
[Couldn't digest it!]

From An Iranian Metamorphosis. © 2012 by Editions çà et là / ARTE Editions. Rights arranged through Nicolas Grivel Agency. All rights reserved.

Read About Context Explore Teaching Ideas

From An Iranian Metamorphosis. © 2012 by Editions çà et là / ARTE Editions. Rights arranged through Nicolas Grivel Agency. All rights reserved.

Definitions

Iran Jomeh: Jomeh means Friday, the day of the Muslim week-end. In Iran, Friday is a non-working day for most people.

Azeri: A dialect of Turkish spoken in the country of Azerbaijan and in the province of Azerbaijan in Iran. “Azeri” can also refer to people of Azerbaijani Turkish origin.

Ministry of Information: The primary intelligence agency of the Islamic Republic, empowered to make arrests and close newspapers or magazines.

General Custer and the Sioux: General George Armstrong Custer was a U.S. army officer in the so-called “Indian Wars” of the 1860s-70s, battling the Sioux and other indigenous armies. He was eventually killed by the Sioux in a battle known as “Custer’s Last Stand .

Meet Mana Neyestani

It all started with a roach. Every cartoonist in Iran knows the day will come, but no one could’ve believed that it would start this way . . . 

Find out how Neyestani became a cartoonist in an interview with The Comics Journal.

Then watch Neyestani draw, and listen to him tell the story behind “Metamorphosis,” in the film below. (In Persian, with English subtitles.) 

(Watch on YouTube)

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Persian terms in this story, read aloud by Mandana Naviafar.

(Listen on SoundCloud)

Children's Lit Under Fire

Iran is far from the only place where there are controversies over children’s literature! Watch an American Library Association video featuring the “Top Ten” most challenged books in the US. 

Next, listen to a panel on National Public Radio discuss “What people miss in the conversation about banned books.” The panelists point out that comics are often among the most frequently banned books in U.S. schools. (We suggest starting around 12:55.)   

Finally, hear from writers in an ABC News article: Authors of color speak out against efforts to ban books on race.  

A Scholar's Notes on “An Iranian Metamorphosis”

Iranian writer Amir Ahmadi Arian

Scholar Amir Arian provides some historical context for this work in the introduction to Iranian literature on WWB Campus:

In 2006, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president. Under his direction, the Ministry of Cultural Guidance soon reversed the relatively tolerant policies of the Khatami years and put in place a brutal censorship regime. Once again, a generation of writers, those who had come up under Khatami, simply stopped writing or migrated elsewhere. However, by this point, thanks to the reformist movement, censorship rules had been irreversibly eased. Despite the heightened risk under Ahmadinejad, cartoonists and humorists returned to the press after a long absence and boldly took on politicians as well as the values of Iranian society, making themselves vulnerable to public outrage or persecution. Mana Neyestani’s “An Iranian Metamorphosis,” in this collection, is an extreme example of how this increased room for maneuvering put the artists’ and journalists’ lives at risk.

Whose Metamorphosis?

Read the Czech-German novella that inspired Neyestani’s Metamorphosis, or watch a Spanish film of that story. 

(Watch on YouTube)

Why the Protests?

Tabriz university, where protests against Neyestani’s cartoon first began. By Meisam, 2006. CC 3.0 license.

Shoghie, Neyestani’s Azeri cellmate, explains that “Only one cartoon or one newspaper is not the issue. The problem is the history of ignorance” and prejudice against Azeris.

An article from a non-partisan Washington think tank contains some factual errors but makes the same point, suggesting that protests against the cartoon reflected a larger issue: “resentment in Iranian Azerbaijan about the region’s economic and social difficulties.”

The article goes on to note that Persian attitudes towards Azeris are “well captured in the phrase ‘Torki khar’ (Turkish donkey), used by Persians in reference to Azeris, whom they regard as the ‘muscle’ of the Iranian economy to be dominated by Persian ‘brains.'”

You can read the entire article: “Iranian Azeris: A Giant Minority” on the Institute’s website. However, please note that there are serious errors! For example, the article calls Neyestani an “ethnic Azeri cartoonist.”

Iranian novelist and essayist Salar Abdoh, whose work also appears in this unit, writes of Azeris in Iran:

Perhaps out of every three Persians I know, at least one is somehow related to an Azeri, man or woman. The Azeri/Persian relationship is complicated, seeing that save for the last dynasty, most of the royal lines going back a very long time have been Azeri Turkish. Therefore, it is not as cut and dried as that between Persians and other ethnicities. Also the economic might of Azeris in Iran sets them apart. They occupy high levels of power in government and business and therefore are a deeply integral part of the structure of the country.

You can read more about “Iran’s Ethnic Azeris And The Language Question” in an article from the Radio Free Europe (a U.S. government-funded media organization).

“The Islamic Republic says that the Azeris are happy in the Iranian state,” but is that actually true? Learn why fully answering this question is so difficult, and find out more about the perceived “threat” of Azeri nationalism, in an article from the Middle East Institute.

Why Neyestani?

Mana Neyestani on Voice of America TV, 2010. Public domain.

Why was Neyestani personally targeted? In the early aughts, entire newspapers were shuttered in Iran, but by the mid-aughts, the BBC found that the government was focusing instead on “individual journalists and executives . . .” You can find out more about the media landscape in Iran during the era of this story in this article from the Council on Foreign Relations. (The article starts with a discussion of the mass protests and repressions following the 2009 election.)

Neyestani and Da Vinci

After he is put in prison, Neyestani’s interrogator asks him to “write about the Iranian cartoonists that you know”—that is, to report on other cartoonists. In the next panel, at the bottom of page 18, Neyestani seems to be sitting at a dinner table with his colleagues—a reference to the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting The Last Supper, of Jesus eating with his disciples, one of whom has betrayed him to the Roman authorities. 

Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper. Public domain. For more on the painting, visit the Web Gallery of Art.

In his own story, Neyestani tries not to be a “Judas,” writing only unimportant information about the other cartoonists.

Background on Iran

New to learning about Iran? Read the country’s profile from encyclopedia.com (scroll down for more information about modern Iranian history).

Alleyway in Hamoomchaal, by Kamyar Adl. License: CC BY 2.0.

More from Mana Neyestani

Panel from the comic "A Short Guide to Being the Perfect Political Refugee" The text reads: But on days the station is open to refugees, it can take three hours to reach the door! (A crowd waits; the man in glasses from the first picture is at the very end of the line.) From behind the door, an unseen voice shouts "Next!"

  • Read another graphic story of Neyestani’s, also translated by Ghazal Mosadeq, A Short Guide to Being the Perfect Political Refugee, which begins, “On a normal day . . . “
  • Then, watch a short video of his most famous political cartoons, set to music (some disturbing images)
  • Check out this interview with Neyestani, in which an interviewer asks him, “What kind of pictures put you at risk?” (Note: This interview was conducted in 2010, shortly after Neyestani left Iran. The interviewer has a political perspective that comes across in the piece.)
  • Then, look through Neyestani’s work for the organization Cartooning for Peace
  • Finally, visit a Pinterest page featuring Neyestani’s work and photos. 
More from Translator Ghazal Mosadeq

Writer and translator Ghazal Mosadeq

Neyestani’s translator Ghazal Mosadeq is herself an author. Read her short story Ney Boulevard, about Iranian immigrants in Paris.

Reading Banned Literature in Iran

Habibe Jafarian, journalist and author of “How to Be a Woman in Tehran.”

Read Habibe Jafarian’s memoir of growing up as book-loving girl in Iran’s most religious city: For the Love of the Books

Other Prisoners

Shahrnush Parsipur. Photo by Mahgameh Parvaneh, 2010. Public domain.

  • Read an interview with journalist Pouyan Khoshhal, who, like Neyestani, was thrown in Iranian prison over a single word.
  • Then, read the memoir-essay “Prison Echoes” by Shahrnush Parsipur, one of Iran’s most celebrated—and censored—woman novelists (translated by Sara Khalili)  
  • Finally, get a Washington Post reporter’s perspective on his own recent imprisonment in Iran, which he says is “more complicated than good versus evil.”
In and Out of Evin Prison

Evin House of Detention, 2008. By Ehsan Iran. CC 2.0 license.

Read another “Kafkaesque” story about Evin Prison: Photo of Smiling Political Prisoners in Iran’s Evin Prison Lands One in Prison Known For Harsh Conditions

Then, hear from the prisoners’ families who “set up a protest camp outside the prison,” in this New York Times article.

Azeris in Iran: A "History of Ignorance"

Neyestani’s cellmate complains about a “history of ignorance” about Azeris. Learn about Azeri culture and “the two Azerbaijans,” one an independent republic, the other in Iran, in this dated but still helpful article: Azerbaijan.

Then, read a BBC Persian article about the protest and the Iranian government’s response, which included tear gas.

Finally, listen to a song by Davod Azad, a popular Azeri musician.

Writing for Children in Dangerous Times

Neyestani began as a political cartoonist, but as Iran’s government became more oppressive, he switched over to children’s cartoons because they seemed “less risky . . . Boy, can I be wrong!”

Eighty years ago, Russian writers living under the murderous leader Stalin tried this strategy, too. Watch a video of poet and artist Vladimir Mayakovsky’s children’s book What Is Good and What is Bad? 

According to the book, it is good to “keep no secrets,” avoid walking in thunderstorms, and brush your teeth. (Watch on YouTube)

Then, find out what happened to Mayakovsky and the other Russian poets and artists who, like Neyestani, “turned to writing for children” in this Guardian article

The Train of History

Neyestani’s cellmate Shoghie tells him: “We have no personal problems with you or other journalists but on the way towards the ideal there’s a good chance some people get crushed under the train of vicissitudes. ”

In post-Soviet Russia, people described their lives with the same metaphor. Read an oral history of a man who spent his teenage years in the Gulag, one of millions of innocent people “thrown from the moving train.”

General Custer and the Sioux

To find out more about what happened between General Custer and the Sioux leader Crazy Horse (which was very different from what happened between Neyestani and his cellmate Shogie!) watch this long-form BBC documentary.

Major-General George A. Custer. By Elizabeth Bacon Custer, 1877. Public domain.

Iran's Drinking Culture

In the memoir, a colleague advises Neyestani to “hide any alcohol.” Alcohol is officially banned by the clergy in Iran, but people still find ways to obtain it, and alcoholism remains an issue.

Read a New York Times article about alcoholism and drinking culture in Iran.

A Cockroach, or Something "More Mysterious"?

Czech-German writer Franz Kafka, 1932. Public domain.

Neyestani connects “An Iranian Metamorphosis” to an earlier story, the Czech-German writer Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Most people who’ve read Kafka’s story in English remember it being about a man who transforms into a cockroach. But was it really? Unravel the mystery in this article from openculture.com.

More Kafkaesque Stories*

*For Teaching Idea 1

More Writing That "Crosses the Frame"*

On WWB Campus:

  • From Russia, The Only True Guide to Russia. Belying the tongue-in-cheek claim in its title, this cartoon collection includes fantastical stories of remote-controlled bears, Kremlin-created frost, and more.
  • From Japan, the magical realist story Once Upon a Swing.
  • Also, from Japan, The Memory and The Farside, short stories that both depict narrators who “break the fourth wall,” revealing themselves as actors in the events they are describing.

Elsewhere: Blending fact and fantasy:

  • Art Spiegelman’s Maus: narrating true events from Spiegelman’s father’s experiences during the Holocaust, these works of graphic nonfiction depict all the characters as literal animals: Jews as mice, Christians as pigs, etc.
  • Kafka’s The MetamorphosisThe Trial, and other works.

Elsewhere: Breaking the fourth wall:

*For Teaching Idea 2

More on Love and Prison*

On WWB Campus:

  • The Wondrous Deer of the Eternal Hunt, a Russian oral history about a man imprisoned in Stalin’s camps as a teenager. He is asked how he survived and replies, “I was very well loved as a child.”
  • The Gringo Champion, a novel excerpt from Mexico, in which scenes of young love and friendship are interposed with scenes of violence at the hands of “la migra.”

Elsewhere: 

*For Teaching Idea 3

To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

From An Iranian Metamorphosis. © 2012 by Editions çà et là / ARTE Editions. Rights arranged through Nicolas Grivel Agency. All rights reserved.

Read Next

iran-transformation