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BOOK REVIEW CULTURE

“Zahra’s Paradise” and Rationalizing Suffering

I got home, brewed some tea, and got under my blanket.

I had only read a few pages from the book as I felt a knot form in my throat because I realized that this story is very familiar.

My tea was going cold

During the past two terms, I have been completing my Co-op which is a program at my university where students work full time for a few terms to gain experience before they graduate. Naturally, I have missed going to lectures and learning from other students and my instructors. There is no end to my academic curiosity and I sometimes feel cut off from my life line because I am not taking any courses at the moment.

One thing that gets me through this tough time is my weekly meetings with my friend Sophie where she talks about the Middle East Studies courses she has been taking in the past year. I even check out their required readings sometimes to be able to feel included in the conversation and share my opinions as well. UBC’s History Department is offering a course on “The Middle East in Graphic Novels” which had piqued my interest as I am a huge fan of graphic novels. There are some amazing novels in their reading list which I have really enjoyed in the past. I like reading after all, much more than other things.

I went to the Vancouver Public Library the other day to pick up my books that have been on hold for some time now. As always, I took a look at the graphic novels section to see if there is anything interesting. Sitting on the shelf, I saw “Zahra’s Paradise”. I had heard my friends who are taking the history course on graphic novels speak about this book so I decided to check it out to have something intellectual to speak about whenever I meet Sophie next.

Here is the synopsis: “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.” (Goodreads)

I got home, brewed some tea, and got under my blanket.

I had only read a few pages from the book as I felt a knot form in my throat because I realized that this story is very familiar.

My tea was going cold.

As I hit page 86, my tears were rolling down from my cheeks onto the page. I was crying together with the mother Zahra who was now searching for her son in a catalogue of faces in a morgue. Faces that were once lit up with life and hope now lying lifeless within those pages. The people in the panels say “When will politicians stop playing their dirty games? Our children have become their pawns.” 

Zahra’s Paradise, page 86

Zahra in this story, is a mother who does not stop searching for her son who disappears on the day of the protests. Her story intersects with other mothers who are also looking for their children.

Page 138
*Amir explains the power of chanting Allahu Akbar during the 2009 marches in Iran as “in addition to the feelings of strength in unity and solidarity, Allahu Akbar also came to convey a special irony. Repeated chants of “God is the greatest”, theoretically music to the ears of a theocratic regime, came to be understood as a reproach and a taunt by an ostensibly godly, yet illegitimate, regime.”

The Grieving Mothers in Zahra’s Paradise reminded me of Saturday Mothers in Turkey, which is a group that gathers every Saturday at noon since 1995 to ask the government about their missing relatives. The Saturday Mothers were inspired by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina which is a group that also gathers for the same goal: asking about what happened to their loved ones.

Saturday Mothers holding the photos of their missing loved ones in front of the Galatasaray High school in Istanbul

Saturday Mothers ask about the forced disappearances committed by the Turkish state under the state of emergency between 1980s and 1990s. Forced disappearances in Turkey have been symbolized with White Renault Toros cars because the police and military force at the time were officially using this car model. Known as the “White Toros Kidnappings”, a lot of people (mostly in Kurdish areas) went missing because they were illegally detained by the government, tortured, and killed in most cases. Recently the Turkish government has been kidnapping members of the Gulen Movement using black vans in the same way. 

An important note: Hüseyin Galip Küçüközyiğit, a former legal advisor at the Prime Ministry who was dismissed from his position following the 2016 coup attempt, has been missing since 29 December 2020. If you would like to take action against his suspected forced disappearance, you can send an appeal letter to the Turkish Chief Public Prosecutor by following Amnesty International’s model letter.

Saturday Mothers have recently been put to trial in Turkey for “not dispersing in 2018 when they were asked to by the police”. I salute their honourable civil disobedience again as I write this blog post. As we can see from many examples of mothers asking for their loved ones, we know that love and perseverance for them is a character trait shared over borders, languages, and nationalities.

As I neared the end of Zahra’s Paradise, I was faced with the amazing depiction of a mourning mother. Zahra is saying: “Burn, my son, burn with rage, burn through this shroud of lies, burn, burn as only you can burn, burn with all your truth, burn with all your life, burn through this death…” surrounded by memories of her son Mehdi who was brutally tortured and murdered in the Kahrizak Prison. I felt myself burn as I read through this page.

Page 218

I found this book to be very impactful because of the style of its truth claim. The authors are telling us that you can look at facts and figures all you want to decide on what is the truth, but in the end, you need a human story to decide with your heart as much as you do with your mind. 

The choice is yours and where you stand when faced with oppression matters. To decide with the heart is sometimes more difficult than to decide with the mind. You will question yourself, your ideologies, and your beliefs to arrive at the conclusion that human suffering is universal and there are more ways of connecting through our grief rather than tearing each other apart through our differences.

This is also an important point for all of us who are studying any type of social sciences as we sometimes find ourselves rationalizing the pain and suffering of a group of people under the guise of analyzing the issue. Studying experiences as claims to truth should always be an integral part of our academic work when we are searching for the answers to our questions.

Another lesson I got for myself out of Zahra’s Paradise was to write, and to document more stories. Especially to write the silent resistance of people who do not have the ability to reach out.

Page 27

I acknowledge my privilege as I write this blog post from the safety of my home in Canada and I say: the people and their resistance will always turn out to be stronger than pathetic governments trying to play God.

Ending Note: Please share what you think about the effects of ‘rationalizing the pain of others for the sake of our academic arguments’ in the comments or through messaging me. Let’s get a conversation going about this.

2 replies on ““Zahra’s Paradise” and Rationalizing Suffering”

This has touched me very deeply, I have seen and am seeing forced disappearances happen in my home country, Egypt. Behind each soul is a multi-layered story that would act as a humbler and a reminder of how privileged we, alhamdulillah, are to be safe and relatively sane.

sincerely appreciated the message conveyed here!

Liked by 1 person

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