In their best-selling graphic novel Zahra’s Paradise, Amir Soltani and Khalil Bendib captured the 2009 demonstrations in Tehran, Iran. Now, they're using that medium to give the world a look at another issue with which the country struggles: the acceptance of its LGBT community.
Yousef and Farhad tells the story of two young men struggling to gain acceptance from the people around them and to learn how to navigate life in a country that doesn't support their love. The WorldPost is publishing the comic, which is a collaboration with LGBT rights group OutRight Action International, in a four-part series this month.
For Soltani and Bendib, Yousef and Farhad is more than just another graphic novel. They’ve taken what they learned with Zahra’s Paradise to try to connect with an online global audience -- but also to join a larger conversation about human interaction, freedom and what it means to love.
"Language is very crucial in how we see and relate to each other," Soltani told The WorldPost. "And Iran has become a place where, in the name of orthodoxy, [people in power] generate a language of hatred and enmity where you’re either a heretic or an infidel or a spy or an apostate, an enemy against God."
To combat this, he said, you have to use language as well. Labeling people begins the process of dehumanizing them, said Soltani, who left Iran when he was young.
And that’s where his writing comes in.
"There’s certain key words, like 'terrorist' or 'gay' or 'faggot' or 'animal' or 'apostate,' 'heretic' -- all of these words, they are such hateful instruments, and they can cause such extraordinary damage, that I think the ultimate goal for me as a writer is to take the venom and the force and the power and authority out of these words," he said.
"And it’s not just happening with gays," he explained. "It’s happening with the Baha’i, it’s happening with secular Iranians, it’s happening with religious clerics -- it’s a question of power. I think as artists we can submerge it, we can challenge it. So that’s why we agreed to do this project."
“Language is very crucial in how we see and relate to each other.”
Bendib’s inspirations are similar. The graphic novel, he said, allows him to show the controversies in Iran and embrace the challenges they present.
"This is the most unadulterated, directly unabashedly narrative form," he said.
The positive responses to Zahra’s Paradise inspired Bendib to continue illustrating complex social topics.
"Wherever we went, France or Brazil or Italy, or Turkey or wherever, we’d have people com[ing] up to us and thanking us: 'Thanks to you, I was able to understand what goes on there because I don’t really read books on this topic, I don’t like to read newspapers. Television doesn’t do it either,'" he said.
"They felt that this particular medium was perfect. It was such a heavy, complicated theme," he continued. "But having the help of the images really made the difference, especially for young people."
So Soltani and Bendib welcomed the task of telling a gay love story that takes place somewhere where openly acknowledging an LGBT identity can land someone in prison and where gender reassignment surgery is presented as a "solution" because some people erroneously believe being gay means you're "trapped" in the "wrong" body.
The graphic novel examines the question of how people in Iran think of homosexuality compared to other "criminal" acts.
In the beginning of Yousef and Farhad, for example, one character asks another why he is distressed about his son. She asks a series of questions to determine what the son could have done: Did he commit murder? Steal? The other man says no each time, indicating that his son did something worse.
"I think it’s very important for the Iranian people to be able to claim … our right to define who we are and our right to put limits on others’ ability to infringe on our freedoms," Soltani said. "And when they attack your identity or sexuality or morality, when you’re constantly put on the defensive, that’s wrong. I think [the Islamic republic] should be on the defensive, not the Iranian people."
He believes his work with Bendib is representative of a larger movement in the country.
"It’s not just gays that are doing this," he said. "Iranian women are doing it. Everyone in Iran is in one way or another trying to place limits on the state’s ability to control both the public and the private sphere."
"The obscenity is not that of the Iranian people," he said. "The obscenity is the Islamic republic. What’s obscene is killing people’s kids and then burying them and denying people the right to have proper funerals. Talk about violating the basics of Islamic religious belief."
Highlighting conflict is partly why Bendib finds the project so important.
"One of our major motivations was putting a human face on an entire culture, which tends to be defined by a lot of stereotypes and negative impressions," he said. "So we’re trying to bring to life real people and showing how they’re flawed like everybody else. They’re certainly not perfect, but they’re certainly not any more evil, devious than you or me."
Soltani agrees, and said he hopes stories like Yousef and Farhad can help change that narrative.
"Many parents of gay kids have been so homophobic until they discover that their kid is gay. And then they’re stuck between what they learned and what their beliefs are on the one hand, and what their love is on the other," he said. "And for us, I think it’s just coming back to this idea that love is what matters. Love and acceptance and tolerance."
“We’re trying to bring to life real people and showing how they’re flawed like everybody else. They’re certainly not perfect, but they’re certainly not any more evil, devious than you or me.”
Bendib, who is Algerian, said the Iranian revolution shows there is hope for the country. Soltani also said he is optimistic about the future of Iran. For him, the storytelling, activism and online campaigns boil down to one thing: love.
"Iran [is] not a culture about hate and enmity," he said. "It’s a culture about love and unity. It’s not a culture that’s about East nor West, it’s a culture that’s about both the East and the West. … Iran belongs to all of us, and in some ways, it’s what’s best in us."
Whether they're highlighting the atrocities that go on in a prison, the restrictions on women or the suppression of LGBT people, these two artists show they care about what it means when humans are forced to hide identity, to hide love. And they recognize that it doesn't have to be that way.
"When you write, you’re trying to imagine," Soltani said. "You’re fighting for that Iran that maybe we’ve lost. … The Iran of all the poets. The Iran of my childhood. I guess I’m trying to reclaim a little bit of that. It’s still here, even though it’s in exile. It’s in exile, but it still has a voice."
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