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The Work of Iranian Cartoonists Such as Nik Kowsar Is No Laughing Matter

In terms of editorial cartoons, "satire goes back to the 1906 Constitutional Revolution," says Babak Rahimi, an Iranian scholar and an assistant professor of literature at the University of California at San Diego. "It was a way for people to express their political opinion. But in recent years -- since the Iranian Revolution -- independent cartoonists cannot live on their own. They have to depend on a newspaper or a political party." So an editorial cartoonist, for instance, could well be hired by a news agency that's tied a political candidate, he says.

Even then, "if you do a metaphorical cartoon and the state wants to interpret it as they want," Rahimi says, "they can arrest you."

If Rahimi has seen a singular shift among Iranian cartoonists in recent years, it's in how they depict the president. As political caricature and punching bag, Ahmadinejad has become what former president George W. Bush was to American cartoonists, Rahimi says -- an easy and frequent target.

Amid the current uprising, however, official "red lines" still prevent almost all Iranian cartoonists from satirically depicting the nation's religious leaders. "It's illegal to depict a cleric in a humorous way," Rahimi says. . "I've never seen someone actually make fun of, or caricature, a cleric. Only politicians."

Which might explain why Kowsar -- who describes his personal faith as "Muslim Lite" -- once spent six days in a Tehran prison for satirizing clerical attitudes toward free speech.

"I had drawn a cartoon with a crocodile that referred to a powerful ayatollah," he recounts. "I named the crocodile Professor Temsah." In Farsi, "temsah" (meaning crocodile) rhymes with "Mesbah" -- a reference to Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi. In the cartoon, the academic reptile strangles a journalist with its tail.

"Clergy students and ayatollahs asked for my death," Kowsar says. "They shut down their theological school and I was summoned to the press court and imprisoned for six days." His detention, in early 2000, was right before parliamentary elections, and because of the international media spotlight, Kowsar believes "the judiciary kicked me out of prison -- though the judge told me I was looking at a 20-year sentence . . . for attacking Islam and defaming prophets."

"If I were to set foot in the country again, I'd immediately go back to prison," says Kowsar, who received the international Award for Courage for Editorial Cartooning from Cartoonists Rights Network in 2001.

Is it courage, though, that propels a political cartoonist to crosshatch so blatantly over a government's red lines? Is it fearlessness, or a passionate political conviction?

None of the above, Kowsar replies quickly. "As a cartoonist in Iran, you should be nuts. I was nuts."

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