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Iranian Expat Strikes Back

Washington — When Omid Memarian first clicked on the e-mail attachment and saw the cartoon he had commissioned titled Censorship, he felt his throat constrict.

The image depicts a writer who has a giant pair of open scissors straddling his neck like a vise. The writer’s hands are trapped in the scissors’ handles in such a way that if he tries to put pen to paper, he will snip off his own head.

For Memarian, 39, the cartoon was hardly a metaphor. In 2004, when he was a writer and magazine editor in Tehran, he was arrested without warning, blindfolded, handcuffed and thrown into a van.

“The guy pushed me to the floor and put his boot on my neck,” Memarian recalled, wincing at the memory as he sat in his sixth-floor Chinatown apartment in the District of Columbia, where he moved this year after emigrating from Iran to California. “They didn’t have to do it — I already couldn’t move because of the handcuffs. They just did it to terrify me and humiliate me.” Memarian was held for 55 days along with several other journalists, first in a secret location and then in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Interrogators kicked him in the stomach and slammed his head against a concrete wall, trying to extract confessions.

“Tell us about your trip to the U.S.!” they repeatedly demanded, although he had never been there. “Why are your articles being published on foreign websites?” The journalists’ arrests were widely publicized in the Iranian press — back then, there was still enough openness for that. But they signaled the end of a period in which civil society, journalism and the arts had flourished, and a return to fear and censorship.

The cartoon that resonated with Memarian appears in Sketches of Iran: A Glimpse From the Front Lines of Human Rights, a book edited by Memarian that showcases the work of Iranian cartoonists, journalists and dissidents. Its publication precedes the Iranian presidential election, slated for Friday.

Since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president eight years ago, hundreds of journalists and activists have left Iran, with the trickle becoming a flood after the 2009 crackdown on election-fraud protests. Memarian left in 2005, a few months after his release from prison, to be a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. He stayed and earned master’s degrees in journalism and in peace and conflict studies.

But unlike earlier dissidents, for whom departure usually meant cutting themselves off from the political and social pulse of Iran, Memarian and his generation of exiles have maintained an active rapport with the homeland. Thanks to advances in technology that allow for more fluid virtual borders, they are often able to accomplish things that have become impossible in Iran.

For example, the censors of today’s Iran would never approve a book like Sketches, in which Ahmadinejad is lampooned as Pinnochio, a worker is shown hammering a false smile onto a man’s face, and a ballot box is depicted as a bloodied dove with its head chopped off. Each of the 40 cartoons, representing the work of seven artists, is accompanied by a short personal essay by a dissident, intellectual, activist or relative of someone the Iranian regime has imprisoned or killed. Topics range from freedom of expression to voting fraud to gender equality to minority rights.

Poking subtle fun at rulers can come in handy under repressive governments, which Iran has had for much of its contemporary history, said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which published the book.

“Editorial cartoons have always, since the first Iranian newspaper in the 19th century … been an essential part of the public discourse,” he said.

“Using indirect forms of expressing dissent, especially through satire, has become quite an art.” Memarian, who runs ICHRI’s research division and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast, came up with idea for the book in the wake of the 2009 crackdown.

“It was a flourishing time for political cartoonists,” he said. “They were so influential … so I thought, that’s a very good medium to raise awareness about human rights issues.” Tensions have risen as the government has barred prominent would-be candidates from running for president and imprisoned activists and bloggers in an apparent attempt to avoid a repeat of the last election protests.

But while most of the reformist newspapers and magazines that bloomed in the late 1990s and early 2000s have been stamped out, the Internet has allowed exiled activists to communicate in new ways.

And Iran’s eager audience is ready to receive: People pass material around secretly, downloading it onto CDs and transferring it via Bluetooth, in an echo of the exchange of the forbidden cassette recordings and printed copies of speeches by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1970s.

Since January, a weekly political podcast by Brooklyn-based satirist Kambiz Hosseini called Five in the Afternoon has garnered over a million hits. He plans to start a television program this year. And in March, a group of Iranian journalists in North America and Europe started IranWire, an online platform to disseminate news and promote citizen journalism in Iran.

The site, to which Memarian contributes, is headed by Maziar Bahari, an Iranian Canadian Newsweek reporter who was jailed in Iran after the 2009 protests and forced to give a false confession on television. (The comedian Jon Stewart is making a movie about Bahari’s ordeal.) Hosseini and Bahari both contributed essays to Sketches, as did Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi and the Iranian American journalist Roxana Saberi, each of whom spent time in an Iranian prison. In one essay, the actress and director Susan Taslimi recounts how censors ordered her scenes cut from movies because of her “penetrating gaze”; in another, the son of 2009 presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi writes of how his septuagenarian father was beaten and put under house arrest after he objected to the election results.

For people outside Iran, the cartoons and essays can offer a more accessible window onto the worsening human rights situation than a formal report could, Memarian said.

“When you hear about human rights issues in Iran, sometimes it’s numbers, sometimes it’s locations, names of officials — but these are actual people whose lives have been changed, people who are suffering every day,” he said.

For some of the contributors, the book also served as a kind of catharsis.

“I use a lot of angry humor, but I’ve never explained why I’m angry,” said Hosseini, who can remember watching public executions as a child in Iran. “It was a platform for me to explain for the first time why a 37-year-old man who immigrated to the U.S. 10 years ago is so angry.” Being included in the book was somewhat risky for contributors who live in Iran or have family members there.

“Why do they do it?” Memarian said. “It’s not as a favor to me. These are people who have hope that people around the world will see their situation. I think it shows an eagerness to be heard.”