Human rights activist gives convocation

(Source: Amir Soltani) “Zahra’s Paradise” is a fictional composite that paints the picture of a student who vanished during the street protests following Iran’s elections in 2009.

In the form of a convocation presented by International Education Week and the Weber State University Student Association, Amir Soltani gave a presentation on his graphic novel titled “Zahra’s Paradise” and answered questions about Iran and the 2009 protests. The convocation took place in the Wildcat Theater at noon on Wednesday.

Following the political protests in Iran in 2009, Soltani and his artist, Kahlil, created the graphic novel. “Zahra’s Paradise” is a fictional composite that paints the picture, through numerous interviews and real-life experiences, of Mehdi, a student who vanishes after one of the great street protests following the elections. The story is told by a blogger and describes the journey that he and his mother Zahra take to find Mehdi.

Soltani is a human rights activist, journalist and documentary filmmaker. He said the team who worked on the graphic novel included himself, Kahlil and Mark Siegel, the publisher.

“But the team is much bigger, because we’ve had bloggers all over the place pushing it out, we’ve had activists pushing it out, United for Iran, (and) the Boroumand Foundation,” Soltani said. “So the team is vast. The team is a movement, really.”

He went on to say that, although most of his work as an activist is independent, he works closely with other organizations, such as Amnesty International and the Boroumand Foundation, because they document the cases and “do the hard work.”

“We could collaborate with Amnesty International and help them advance their goals and the Boroumand Foundation and other organizations,” he said. “What will make the difference is the day every prison is open, gates are open, and the people inside are freed. So until that day, the work is not done.”

The graphic novel took two years to finish from beginning to publication, but it first went to the Web as it was coming together. Soltani said “Zahra’s Paradise” was printed in the U.S. in September 2011 and was translated into 14 other languages. According to Soltani, he and the artist received a great amount of feedback and acquired a larger audience. He said the graphic novel and blogs were fun ways to engage politically.

“I think the publication of ‘Zahra’s Paradise’, for me, was a great surprise, because the book got translated into so many languages,” Soltani said. “And so I ended up doing interviews for newspapers all over the world, so we generated, in a sense, millions of dollars in free human rights publicity.”

Although “Zahra’s Paradise” tells the story of a mother’s loss and grief, Soltani described love as the most powerful message to take out of the graphic novel — “the power of love to transcend death and to do whatever it takes and whatever is necessary to reclaim life, even if it is, in the end, in the cemetery.”

Liz Memmott, a marketing major in the honors program, is among the students who became interested in the event after seeing the life-size posters around campus. Memmott said it’s important that students have a more global perspective of what’s truly going on.

“I think it’s incredibly important, especially for the rest of the world, to be able to put a real face on these people and realize that they are people just like you and I,” said Memmott after listening to Soltani’s presentation.

She said Muslims are enduring a great amount of oppression and that it’s important that they receive the support they deserve, specifically on campus.

“I think its important for us to take our Muslim friends in and appreciate their culture and be more aware of what ‘Muslim’ really means,” Memmott said.

Other students attended the convocation for assignments or out of curiosity. Some students said they didn’t even know there were political protests in Iran in 2009. Scott Jordan, an undecided freshman, said he attended the convocation for his English class.

“I didn’t realize that there was that much revolution in Iran,” he said.

Jordan also said he had heard of “Zahra’s Paradise,” but he didn’t know what it was about.

Soltani is currently working on a documentary called “Redemption,” the story of poor recyclers in west Oakland, Calif. According to Soltani, it will hopefully be completed by the end of this year. Soltani can be contacted through e-mail at [email protected].