Behind Iranian Lines, Cartoonists Come Under Fire

By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Nikahang Kowsar could withstand verbal barrages. It was the other kind of flak that haunted him.

"Years ago, I had this dream that I was followed by the militia and shot," says Kowsar, 39, a lightning rod of an Iranian expatriate who lives in Toronto. "I've had this nightmare for many years. I left Tehran because I thought things would change and that this was what would literally happen. My wife made fun of me and said, 'You're a dreamer.' I said, 'You just connect the dots.' "

Now, she can connect the dots as if they formed a chalk outline. Around the body that could have been his.

Listen to Nik Kowsar and there's no sense of melodrama or paranoia. His truth is plain. For years, Kowsar -- who was once jailed for his work -- had one of his nation's more dangerous jobs: He was the most famous, or infamous, political cartoonist in Iran.

Since the June 12 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that has sparked charges of a rigged vote and deadly protests, basic freedoms have again come under a global spotlight: The freedom to voice opinions about a vote's legitimacy. The freedom to do so by using Twitter and other social networking to spread political speech. And the freedom -- or lack of it -- to publish a cartoon or column that criticizes the nation's religious leaders.

From his editorial perch in Canada, Kowsar says he believes his cartoons have an impact despite the efforts of the Iranian government.

"I have two pages on Facebook -- I have 500 friends on one and 1,500 on the other," says Kowsar, who draws for the Dutch-funded news site and also puts his work on his blog. "When I post a cartoon, I see that many of my friends are sharing my cartoons -- by that, I mean tens of thousands are getting these cartoons and e-mailing them. They are spread throughout the world.

" . . . People in Tehran hold up their hands and show bypassers my cartoons -- I've seen a lot of people do that," continues Kowsar, whose work has also appeared in such Western outlets as The Washington Post, Newsweek, the New York Times and the Guardian. "That's very touching to me."

From within Iran, Sepideh Anjomrooz -- one of her nation's very few female editorial cartoonists -- speaks to the challenges of getting her opinions seen by the larger world. At times during the current unrest, nearly "all communication channels such as text messaging, mobile phone, Internet sites, satellites, etc., were closed," Anjomrooz, who is Muslim, says by e-mail. "But protesters, each time, find a way to obtain the news and reflect the unrest situations."

Anjomrooz, a Tehran-based freelance cartoonist, is well aware of the potential perils of her profession. "Cartoon[s] in limited societies could be a dangerous action," she says of Iran, which in 2006 notably jailed artist Mana Neyestani over a newspaper cartoon that led to rioting.

Still, Anjomrooz -- who recently drew a social-networking cartoon in which "SOS" transforms to "SMS" -- says firmly: "In the current situation, it seems that continuing the work is better than stopping it."

The context for Iranian cartoons can be terribly complex -- especially in a nation in which satire has a particularly rich history over the past century.

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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