Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

Home > News Story and Obituary Archive

Nik Kowsar on Arrested Iranian Cartoonist Mana Neyestani
posted May 25, 2006

imageThe talented cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar knows the turmoil and frustration brought on by Iran's treatment of cartoonists, having been recently tried in absentia in his home country for making cartoons that upset targeted officials in the Iranian government. I was told by Bryan Munn that Kowsar was friends with the just-imprisoned Mana Neyestani, whose cartoon tweaking the Azeri majority lead to riots, caused injuries and deaths, forced a newspaper closure, and brought about multiple arrests. A check at the blog maintained by Kowsar's friend Daryl Cagle confirmed their relationship. Kowsar was kind enough to answer a few questions of mine. I think they're interesting; Kowsar seems to view the government's actions as somewhat arbitrary, controlled by political operatives and performed in the context of wider political issues that may over-simplify our understanding of the cultural forces at play.

We join Nik Kowsar in his prayers for his imprisoned friend.

Tom Spurgeon: Can you describe your friend both personally and as a cartoonist? Is he the kind of cartoonist that pushes at boundaries? Were you surprised that Mana would be the target of this kind of thing?

Nikahang Kowsar: He is a skillful artist , a very nice and shy person, and cares for his colleagues. He is has tried to avoid controversy, but has pushed the lines several times. As soon as I saw the cartoon, I was sure that a mistake had been made and asked Mana to write an apology letter. And the paper published a public apology letter but it seems that the ones offended wanted something more.

Spurgeon: Were you surprised by the closing of the paper and the arrests, or have events been moving in that direction?

Kowsar: I was surprised that the separatists took the cartoon as an excuse to cause such a turmoil. Hundreds of thousands were on the streets yesterday. The government closed the paper and arrested Mana and the editor to settle the case, but it hasn't worked yet.

Spurgeon: Were you surprised by the generally strong reaction against the cartoon?

Kowsar: I was waiting for a small protest coming from the Azeri minority, but not this strong.

Spurgeon: How did you learn of the arrests and closure? Were you aware of the riots? Did you have any contact with Mana after the cartoon was published?

Kowsar: I was in touch with my friends in Tehran, and based on my own experience, the arrest was predictable.

Spurgeon: Were you surprised that this came from the Press Supervisory Body? It's my understanding that most newspaper closings in Iran have come from judges as opposed from one of the ministries.

Kowsar: They have the authority to act before the press court, and it's somehow controlled by the hardliners.

Spurgeon: What kind of effect have recent events had on the cartooning community in Iran? Have you been in contact with other cartoonists?

Kowsar: Nowadays, cartooning is a very dangerous profession in Iran, and probably cartoonists might be referred to as funny criminals.

Spurgeon: How would you describe the wider situation to Western cartoonists who are amazed and surprised by this week's arrests?

Kowsar: For people who haven't lived in a country so diverse, it's a little bit confusing. We have at least 20 million Azeris in the country that have always been discriminated through jokes and puns. The outrage could have happened for any other reason.

Spurgeon: Do you have any idea how things will be expected to proceed from this point on? Will there be a trial?

Kowsar: I'm just praying for Mana, and hope the Azeri prisoners in the Evin prison would have merci on him.

Spurgeon: Is there anything about the press coverage so far that you believe misses the point, or something you'd like to add. Is there anything the average comics or cartoon fan can do?

Kowsar: I think the press is so obsessed with the Nuclear crisis, that have totally focused on the Iranian politics regarding to the previous issues with president Ahmadinejad, and do not understand the nations difficulties and issues.