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Nikahang Kowsar Being Funny Is Not that Funny: Contemporary Editorial Cartooning in Iran TWENTY-ONE YEARS AGO, WHEN I WAS JU ST STARTING MY professional career, my publisher told me that the ayatollahs consider satire to be nonsense and, based on one of the sections of Quran, a devoted Muslim should avoid nonsense. In other words, a satirist or cartoonist could be considered a “sinner.” Anyone who knowingly resists the rules of Allah to follow Satan couldn’t be a good person and believer. Twelve years ago, one of my cartoons (see figure 1) created chaos just prior to the parliamentary elections. Many seminaries closed in protest of what I had done, and thousands of clergy students and their supervisors staged a sit-down protest for four days. I had possibly antag­ onized the m ost powerful class in the countiy, but I had only drawn a cartoon of a crocodile shedding “crocodile tears” while strangling a journalist with its tail and playing victim! The crocodile was crying “No one’s gonna save me from this mercenary writer?” It was referEditor ’s note: Many of the cartoons in this article are in low resolution because the publications in which they first appeared have been shut down and the original art­ work is no longer available. We have chosen to publish them anyway, believing that it is important to share them with our readers even if pixellated. The illustrations will also all be available on our website at, where they will appear with the artists’ intended clarity. social research Vol. 79 : No. 1 : Spring 2012 117 Figure 1. “Ostad Temsah” by Nikahang Kowsar, Azad newspaper, 2000. “Professor Crocodile” cries: “Nobody’s gonna help me get rid of this merce­ nary writer?” This cartoon caused a national security crisis in 2000, weeks before the sixth parliamentary election. ring to Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi’s allegations about Iranian journalists being bribed by a CIA chief who had allegedly traveled to Tehran with a large suitcase full of US dollars. Mesbah, a very powerful ayatollah who turned out to be the guru of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was unlucky enough to have a last name that rhymed with the word temsah, which means “crocodile” in Persian. In those days the ayatollah was called “Professor Mesbah.” I had called my crocodile in the cartoon “Professor Temsah.” From the day the crocodile cartoon was published, people have called Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi “Ostad Temsah.” This may not ring a bell for the average Western cartoon fan: (“So what? Some crazy cartoonist 118 social research messed up with an Ayatollah with a funny last name that rhymed with crocodile in Persian?”) But the truth is that from the day the cartoon was published I have received numerous death threats, been interro­ gated several times, imprisoned in the most notorious prison in Iran, and have had to flee my country in fear, leaving my wife and daughter behind for four years. So, being funny is not that funny in Iran. Satire has its own price. Many Iranian poets throughout history have not published their satirical poems under their real names for fear of losing their lives. Yaghma-ye Jandaghi is an example; fatwas had been issued against him for some of his work. They simply recited their poems in their meetings and that was all. It is interesting for a historian that in a land of literature, with poets like Rumi and Saa’di to its credit, one cannot find any satirical drawings or etchings, whether from the old days of the Persian Empire or more recent miniatures and paintings on the walls of the traditional coffeehouses. Though elements of humor can be found in some paintings, it is difficult to compare them with the satirical art that had been fully established in Europe through the Middle Ages. In medieval times, poets such as Saa’di had their own books of parody. Many of their poems were sexist, making jokes about sexual abuse, genitalia, and sex with minors. But the most influential satirical poet of all time in Iran is ‘Obeyd-e [Ubayd] Zakani, whose work dates to the fourteenth century AD. Ubayd...


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