The Interview: Exiled Iranian Cartoonist Nik Kowsar
Iranian-born political cartoonist NIK KOWSAR has been jailed because of his commentary. He has received death threats. He has refused to cease his cartoon criticism of the Iranian leadership. And he has received the international Award for Courage for Editorial Cartooning award from Cartoonists Rights Network.
So what is it that compelled him for years to draw cartoons within Iran's borders, knowing full well any metaphor could be misconstrued and lead to his arrest? Was it the national fame? Sense of purpose? Passion, courage or political conviction?
No, Kowsar quickly replies. "As a cartoonist in Iran, you should be nuts," he says. "I was nuts."
Amid the recent and deadly post-election uprising in Iran, the exiled Kowsar -- he nows lives in Toronto with his family -- has seen his cartoons held up by demonstrators in the streets of Iran. The 39-year-old cartoonist feels a kinship with these people -- HIS people. The former geology student fervently hopes that time and pressure -- elements so key to geology -- will move political mountains in Iran. And as he hopes for change, Kowsar keeps drawing -- aiming with each penstroke to encourage his like-minded compatriots.
Comic Riffs recently caught up with Kowsar to talk art, politics and the inevitable intersection of Iranian art and politics.
MICHAEL CAVNA: I've got to ask, Nik: Have you seen the viral "Neda" video?
NIK KOWSAR: I have watched it 20 times -- and I have cried at least 15 times. When she first saw it on CNN, my 10-year-old daughter was in shock for hours. It was a big shock for me, too.
Years ago, I had this dream that I was followed by the militia and shot. 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." Yesterday, she told me was so happy that we had left Iran. She was sure I would have been harshly beaten.
MC: What are your reactions to the post-election uprising? How does it make feel -- and how do you assess it?
NK: What I've seen in [recent] weeks -- even before the election -- is the uprising of the middle class. They have been shut off from the whole form of politics in the last four years and they were trying to show their power by pushing out [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. In 2005, half of the eligible voters [participated]; there was 85 percent turnout this time. Because of Ahmadinejad, the "silent majority" entered the play. It was weird. The silent majority hates Ahmadinejad. Former supporters weren't supporting him. The Guard and the council and the interior ministry didn't let the silent majority in on what was going on. The interior ministry and the Guard and council were writing down the votes for whatever they wanted and however they wanted to count it. It's not important who votes -- it's important who counts the votes.
MC: Since you've criticized these practices in your cartoons, how has the Iranian leadership responded?
NK: I'm serving the citizens and trying to put my opinions [out there]. The Iranian government doesn't like my cartoons.
MC: Do you think social networking has made a big difference during this uprising?
NK: I have two pages on Facebook -- I have 500 friends on one
and 1,500 on the other. 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. I feel social networking can help this movement in a way. I'm not sure the Iranian government can [continually] stop people from spreading the word ... by trying to block communication. ... Now, people in Tehran hold up their hands and show bypassers my cartoons -- I've seen a lot of people do that. That's very touching to me. ... I believe my cartoons are on the same frequency as to what the Iranian people are feeling. It helps them.
MC: So when did you start your career as a political cartoonist in Iran, and how long were you drawing cartoons before you had to leave the country?
NK: I joined the Iranian media in 1991 and became an editorial cartoonist in 1993. I went to prison for drawing a cartoon in February 2000. In 2003, I had to leave the country after receiving a death threat and think were getting ugly. I was sentenced in absentia, by the judiciary, to four months in prison and I still have a few charges left. If I were to set foot in the country again, I'd immediately go back to prison.
MC: I've seen the cartoon that led to your imprisonment. Can you describe it in detail -- and what the controversy was, exactly?
NK: I had drawn a cartoon with a crocodile [strangling a cartoonist with its tail] that referred to a powerful ayatollah. I named the crocodile Professor Temsah. In Persian, "Temsah" [which means crocodile] rhymes with the name of the ayatollah -- Temsah -- who had caused outrage. Clergy students and ayatollahs asked for my death. They shut down their theological school and I was summoned to the press court and imprisoned for six days. The reason I got out was because it was right before parliamentary elections and international media were covering the whole thing. Reformists were supporting me in this case and I felt the judiciary kicked me out of prison -- though the judge told me I was looking at a 20-year sentence. They started with one cartoon but [suddenly] here was 168 cartoons. They [accused me and imprisoned me] for attacking Islam and defaming prophets. That's a very big charge. He told me he would send me to prison for a very long time if I didn't quit it.
Once, I decided to quit when I felt my family was under a lot of pressure. I sent my wife and [then] 1-year-old to my in-laws and waited for officers to arrive. There was an order [that they were] arresting journalists. Six journalists were arrested on the same day and I was supposed to be the seventh. The stress killed me.
MC: What was it like as a political cartoonist in Iran in the years prior to the current uprising?
NK: Those years, there was more freedom for cartoonists to criticize parts of the [political] spectrum. We are not allowed to [satirize] clerics and the military and judges. So it was a little difficult to show what you want to show. But we were [working in] symbols and metaphors. For the judiciary, I would show the angel that represents justice. ... We used to show her as a harsh lady who doesn't pay attention to justice. Once, I was actually supposed to be arrested for making fun of her. They thought the blindfold represented a turban on the head of a woman. I was lucky to suppress this charge.
MC: Just how many charges did you face over the years in Iran?
NK: I faced 197 charges over several years for "undermining national security" because I was responsible for a big protest. Right now, probably about 10 of them are still active.
MC: So how do Iranian cartoonists work under these strictures? NK: It's hard to stay active. Most look at cartooning as a second career. Most of your cartoons are censored. Papers often censor cartoons. And they have banned many cartoonists.
MC: Given these conditions, what motivates you to be a cartoonist? Is it political conviction, or bravery, or national interest? In other words: Why take on the risk?
NK: First of all, as a cartoonist, you must be nuts to work in Iran. I think I was. I thought I could talk easily and clearly with the audience.
MC: So is that what motivated you to shift from your college studies in geology? What was the evolution?
NK: I studied geology and was active in school papers, and I decided to join the media after studying geology while still a student in 1991. I even went for my master's [in geology] but quit in 1997. Th whole thing is, I felt there is a need in Iran to publish, with a clear voice, through the simplest cartoons that would connect with the masses. There is a tradition [in Iran] of philosophic cartoons, with too many symbols, that might take minutes and minutes to understand and decode. I thought: Here could be a way to translate the style of American editorial cartoons into Persian -- the style, the rhetoric -- to show politics through humor. When I saw the effect [my cartoons had] on people and how much mail I got, I thought I was on the right path. ... My [highly circulated] work was well-received by the public, especially in Tehran. They were attacking my cartoons on national TV. I could see the effect of my cartoons.
MC: And your work -- critical of the government -- stood out compared with many other cartoons?
NK: Yes. Because many newspapers in Iran are run by politicians, and they uphold conservative thought.
MC: Are you Muslim yourself?
NK: I am what I call "Muslim Lite."
MC: So, are you old enough to remember the Shah and the Iranian Revolution?
NK: I am 39 -- I was born in 1969. Yes, I have memories of the Shah. I even saw one of the princes when I was 8 -- it was at one of the ski resorts. I saw a few bodyguards. [I thought:] It's fun to be a prince. ...
It was very interesting to see how the whole nation [responded] in 1979. The uprising was really powerful and the army didn't have the power to stand in front of the demonstrators. The power of the people was doing what it was supposed to do. After the Revolution, what I saw as a child was how things were changing and how clerics were gaining power. ... It felt as though the clerics were stealing the show. ... We could see that what we were waiting for was not going to happen. Power was going to a new sect: clerics against liberals. ... You could feel the situation changing from democratic state to dictatorship in 1981. The Revolutionary Guard attacked demonstrations in June of 1981. They started arresting and executing people and there were a lot of assassinations.
MC: How was your family personally affected?
NK: My father was a researcher who tried to keep away from politics. But a member of my family was arrested -- a young girl. She was executed in 1983. She was a distant cousin -- she was 14. She was arrested for hiding illegal newspapers and she went to prison for a year or two. She didn't accept the charges [against her].
All this was very important [for me] for getting the idea of how things were working in Iran. When i was a university student, I used to go attend meetings and gatherings just to listen to what was happening. I was a geology student, but I was always studying politics.
MC: So it was your growing political ideas that propelled you to be a cartoonist?
NK: Again, as a cartoonist in Iran, you should be nuts. But I could see that domestic cartoons have an effect on people who are actually sympathetic with the cartoonist. You see the cartoons under glass on their desks or framed and in dorms.
MC: When could you could tell that your popularity as a cartoonist was really growing?
NK: When I published my first book -- in 2000 -- it became a best-seller: 5,000 copies in each publishing, and there five publishings.
MC: So as a political cartoonist, did you feel as though you were filling the function of a journalist?
NK: The one thing that, unfortunately, I felt I was doing was: I was working somehow out of the conscience of an activist, This was something I didn't want to do -- I didn't know I was being an activist and that you have to obey the principles of journalism. We didn't have principles in Iran as journalists; they didn't talk about that. Thank God, when I came to Canada and studied journalism, they talked about conflict of interest. So many things we did in Iran [as journalists], we were somehow connected to one of the powers. That's propaganda. Some of my cartoons were propaganda but I didn't realize that at the time. .. I've criticized [journalist] friends inside Iran for working for political parties. I say, what you are writing is not journalism -- stop being tools for the politicians. ... But it's hard for them because they're making money.
MC: So, do you foresee significant, long-term change happening soon in Iran?
NK: Unfortunately, it will take a long time. It's like evolution -- I say that speaking as a geologist. ... There will be a lot of casualties and a lot of people harmed. ... Everyday, I'm seeing raw videos from sources. I have a heart problem from a mild stroke recently, and I see my heart hurting more and more [as I watch]. But I have to see what's happening.
TO READ MORE about Iranian cartooning amid the uprising, check out this Sunday's Washington Post Style&Arts section.
| July 10, 2009; 9:45 AM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists, The Political Cartoon
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