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'Is This Iran?'

An anonymous web comic looks at the perilous state of human rights and politics in Iran

It may be a comic strip, but Zahra's Paradise deals with the very serious realities of life in Iran today, going back to the massive protests against last year's disputed presidential election and the violent government crackdown that followed.

Described as "real-time historical fiction," Zahra's Paradise blends current events with fictional composites of actual Iranians. The title of this serialized comic comes from the name of a cemetery in Iran's capital, Tehran. The authors are Amir, an Iranian-American social activist, and Khalil, an Arab artist from northern Africa. Both live in the United States and work anonymously, using only their first names to protect themselves and their families.

The story line is based on the aftermath of Iran's presidential election last June, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was officially re-elected with 63 percent of the vote. It was widely believed that widespread fraud occurred in his contest against Mir Hussein Moussavi, a more moderate candidate.

Thousands of Iranians, many of them students, took to the streets of Tehran to peacefully demonstrate, but police responded with tear gas and gunfire. It was the most violent confrontation in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which turned the nation into a theocracy.

During the protests, which continued for several weeks, dozens were killed and hundreds injured. Thousands were arrested, and in Iran, being arrested can mean disappearing altogether.

Despite the government's efforts to restrict Internet access and keep news of the crackdown from reaching the rest of the world, demonstrators used cellphones, Twitter, and Facebook to post videos of protesters being beaten and killed.

President Obama called the government's attacks "outrageous," and the Iranian crackdown heightened concerns around the world about Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program.

Zahra's Paradise, which can be viewed at zahrasparadise.com, tells the story of a woman who searches Tehran for her 19-year-old son Medhi after he disappears during the protests. The comic is updated three times a week.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, May 10, 2010)