In 2006, the Iranian artist Mana Neyestani sat down to draw a children's cartoon for a weekly magazine called Iran Jome. The image showed a 10-year-old boy named Soheil trying to have a conversation with a cockroach in a nonsensical cockroach language. The insect didn't understand the boy and responded, "Namana?" — which means, "What?"
That little cartoon landed Neyestani in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison for three months, and forced the artist to flee the country shortly after his release.
"I was never tortured physically," Neyestani writes via email from Paris, where he is now based. But, he adds, "it was a stressful nightmare, stuck between four walls with fluorescent lights on 24 hours a day [with] no clear idea about your future and the time they [will] keep you in arrest."
"An Iranian Metamorphosis" is a masterful work: the straightforward tale of the artist's detention — and that of his editor Mehrdad Ghasemfar — woven together by moments of humor, tragedy and surreal Kafkaesque absurdity. (In one scene, Neyestani's prison guard asks the beleaguered cartoonist for a portrait, yet only reveals a portion of his face to him.)
Neyestani, now 42, studied architectural engineering in college, but has spent his adult life working as a cartoonist — first in Iran, now in France (where he contributes to sites such as Iran Wire and Tavaana). Interestingly, he has had a front-row perch from which to observe the fallout from the Charlie Hebdo assassinations.
"I felt huge sadness," he says of the murders of the satirical weekly's staff members by Islamist extremists early last month. "I got angry."
The controversy that got Neyestani thrown in jail in Iran, however, was quite different (and far more subtle) than what happened in France. It was his use of the word "namana" in the children's cartoon that started it all. The word is Azeri — of the Azerbaijani minority in Iran — yet it is commonly used by many Iranians in conversation. Neyestani's depiction of a cockroach employing it, however, angered some Azeris, who took it as an insult.
"The image and the use of the word created so much misunderstanding," Neyestani explains. "Those who criticized the cartoon took it out of its context and made it look as if the cockroach was speaking Azeri. They interpreted it as an insult against the Azeri people ... That was never my intention at all."
The government quickly blamed the cartoonist for inciting unrest and threatening national security. Neyestani soon found himself in a 7-by-10-foot cell at Evin where his interrogators demanded preposterous confessions and information about other Iranian cartoonists.
"Each time the interrogator met me, he let me know about the recent damages and dead people in street protests," Neyestani says.
This disorienting experience is covered in beautifully illustrated detail in "An Iranian Metamorphosis." Rich, crosshatch images give many of the panels a moody feel (perfect for conveying the suffocating sense of imprisonment), while government bureaucrats are depicted with tight, pinched faces.
Moreover, Neyestani often strays from reality to convey what he endured emotionally. He shows himself stranded on a desert island, drowning in blood and in dialogue with the endless cockroaches that plague his imagination throughout his most confounding journey.
The novel also covers his risky escape from Iran with his wife, Mansoureh, shortly after he'd been released. At that point a whole other grueling journey begins: that of trying to find a country that would give him safe haven.
"I am not sure [if] the prison time or the failed illegal travel to Europe was the most challenging part," writes Neyestani. "Trying to get a visa from a Western embassy was horrible. It took almost four years [after] I left Iran to get one."
In that time, he managed to stay in Malaysia on a student visa, working on a degree in visual arts. It was during this period that he also began to contribute to Iranian opposition media in Europe and the U.S. In 2011, he was finally admitted to France, where he now lives.
Neyestani's imprisonment for a cartoon makes him a singular observer of the Charlie Hebdo situation in Paris. In fact, Neyestani's work had previously appeared in the satirical weekly.
"As I arrived in Paris in 2011, a nice person from Paris City Hall took me there and introduced me to them," he recalls. "One of them — I cannot remember which one he was — saw my drawings and said it is 'intellectual cartoon,' which meant it was different from their style. They kindly published five to six works of mine with a short text about me."
Neyestani says the attack on Charlie Hebdo didn't come as a total surprise, since its offices had been attacked in 2011, after the publication reprinted images of the prophet Muhammad by a Danish cartoonist.
"But it was still shocking," says Neyestani. "I realized that being in danger doesn't really depend on where I live. I can be targeted whether I live in Iran or in a democratic country like France.
"I can call the jokes 'bland and tasteless,'" he adds, "but freedom of expression is not [about] anybody's taste. You must have the right of expressing your ideas."
Neyestani chooses not to lampoon religion in his work, preferring subtle metaphor to make a point: "I came from a country with a big majority of religious people," he says. "I have learned to avoid being offensive in my works to keep them, to make them think in a sophisticated way, and, of course, to stay alive!"
None of that means that he thinks religion should be off limits.
"Imagine that Lady Gaga's fans, which there are millions, claim that she is their religion — and it became taboo if anybody draws her caricature," he explains. "Should we care because of the huge amount of devoted [followers she has]? It does not make sense."
But he also believes that France's social conditions may lie at the root of what led two young French-born men to commit such an extreme act.
"There are some discriminations in Western societies [of] immigrants — even the ones born in Europe, but with Arab or African nationality," says Neyestani. "They become isolated, without any hope to get opportunities in their lives. They see Islam as their only hope."
The wave of protests in support of the cartoonists, however, gave Neyestani some hope.
"The gathering of people in the streets of France made me feel glad and made me feel some sense of safety," he explains. "It really encouraged me."
Certainly, Neyestani is not the sort of figure to underestimate the power of a cartoon.
"Cartoons are influential because they use an image and employ humor," he writes. "It easily breaks fake holiness and grandeur — and makes you laugh at [that]. And you better know that dictatorships spend tons of money to [manufacture] their grandeur."
"An Iranian Metamorphosis" ($19.99) by Mana Neyestani is available from Uncivilized Books.
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.