Iranian Cartoonist Offends, Entertains

Political cartoons are often both funny and poignant. But they can also be inflammatory. Iranian cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar published a cartoon that showed Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dancing the tango, together. Such cartoons landed Kowsar in jail and eventually expelled from Iran. The artist talks about his cartoons, and why he's still publishing them.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

In this country comedians and cartoonists make fun of our leaders at will and largely as they see fit. In Iran, no surprise being an editorial cartoonist is a dicier affair. Not surprisingly, one of the most popular Iranian cartoonists is currently living in exile in Canada. His name is Nikahang Kowsa. And he fled Iran in 2003 when the authorities did not take kindly to some of his drawings. He was jailed once and under the threat of further harassment he fled the country for Toronto. But he continues to draw. Consider a recent fanciful image of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dancing the tango in a warm embrace.

Given recent advance in Iran, we thought that this was a good time to check in with him to get his take on events in Iran, where he follows matters closely. He is with us from his home office. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. NIKAHANG KOWSA (Cartoonist): Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: When you moved to Toronto in 2003, did you have to leave Iran or did you want to leave?

Mr. KOWSA: I had to leave and I didn't want to leave because I was living a very good life there. I had my own company. I used to work for three newspapers and I had a lot of friends. I had my audiences over there and no worries. But the thing that bothered me was getting a death threat in May of 2003. And getting the news from insiders that I was going to be arrested in July. So, I left the country in June. And I was summoned by the judiciary in early July of 2003. And so, it was a little bit serious.

MARTIN: You'd already left by then?

Mr. KOWSA: Yes, just probably five days after leaving the country they invited me to attend a meeting at the court that meant to be arrested actually.

MARTIN: What was it that you drew that made them so angry? Do you even know?

Mr. KOWSA: Yes, first, a cartoon called "Professor Crocodile." And it has a story. I drew it in early '99 but I didn't publish it. In early 2000 when Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, one of the very powerful radical Ayatollahs who is right now one of the sponsors of Mr. Ahmadinejad for president. Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi said that chief CIA operative is in Tehran to bribe Iranian journalists. And he has brought a big suitcase full of dollars with him. We, in the press, criticized him and I drew a few cartoons.

One of my cartoons was this crocodile that was shedding crocodile tears and strangling a journalist with its tail. And saying, isn't there anybody going to help me get rid of this mercenary writer? I named the crocodile, under the guidance of editors, "Professor Crocodile."

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KOWSA: …that insertion it was (unintelligible) that rhymes with what Mr. Mesbah is known as, Ustad Mesbah. So, because of this rhyming everybody thought that I was attacking Ayatollah Mesbah. And since he was a very powerful person, thousands of clergy students in the holy city of Qum gathered and shut down their schools actually and went on a three-day strike. And they shouted for my death. And a lot of bigger Ayatollahs joined them and it became a crisis.

MARTIN: You're one of the most, if not the most, prominent political cartoonists in Iran. And so, I think a lot of people are curious, like, what were your parameters before you left? Did you always feel you were drawing with an eye on you - over your shoulder or has there been subsequently a crack down, if you will?

Mr. KOWSA: Basically after that cartoon I was actually being monitored closely because I went to prison because of one cartoon. And when I got out I had 168 cases against me.

MARTIN: Cases of what?

Mr. KOWSA: Allegations that I had crossed the line. And the judge was actually the prosecutor and the judge and the interrogator, Mr. Mortazavi, who is right now the chief prosecutor of Tehran and responsible for the deaths of many people in the past few years, was pushing me to actually quit cartooning, but I didn't. So probably that continuation attracted a lot of people to my cartoons.

MARTIN: Is there a specific statute? I mean, what line is it that you're supposed to stay behind?

Mr. KOWSA: One thing is that you're not supposed to offend the religion or religious figures. We don't have it in the law that you're not allowed to draw ayatollahs with the turban and their dressing, but the fact is, nobody does that in Iran.

The other thing is that, although we don't have it in the press law, but we don't draw revolutionary guards. We don't draw women without scarves. We don't draw anything that might offend important political figures. So we don't have so many things in the press law, but we have to obey the unwritten law.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense that your work is seen as a way for people to see your work now?

Mr. KOWSA: Yes, actually, when I see a few of my cartoons being printed off and distributed among the demonstrators in Tehran, I see those pictures. Yeah, I know that my cartoons are being seen widely inside the country. Also, I post them on my blog, sometimes about 20,000 daily visitors, as well as when I post them on Facebook. People get them and, you know, send me a lot of ideas. I have been bombarded by ideas being sent by people inside the country because I think they feel that some things could be said through cartoons that are not widely understood.

MARTIN: A recent cartoon you drew is of a man holding a cell phone in front of a row of tanks, which very much recalls that famous image from Tiananmen Square. The image of your character is kind of happy. He's - smile, you're on YouTube. And of course, this is interesting because people look back at Tiananmen, and they thought that at that point, that China was on the verge, perhaps, of an opening, and it didn't happen. What is your sense about Iran? Do you feel that Iran is on the verge of a great change? Clearly the authorities, those in power, are fighting back very hard, but what's your sense?

Mr. KOWSA: What I thought when I was drawing that cartoon is you see the tank operators also in a shock. If that guy represents the revolutionary guards or the forces who are attacking people, they didn't expect to be actually filmed and viewed by the people all around the world. I bet you have seen the videos of the moment that Neda Agha-Soltan was killed, and that was a great shock to many people outside Iran. This never could have happened in Tiananmen because people didn't have the means to actually picture what was happening there, but this happened just a few weeks ago, and people all around the world witnessed what was happening.

So yes, there's going to be a change, and people in Iran are using any means possible, technology-wise, to demonstrate their needs and their goals and also show what's happening to them and how they are being harassed by the government forces. Unfortunately, I believe that this change would take years and years to happen. Even if there's a quick change in the government, the mentality of the rulers has to change, and this won't be a very swift one.

MARTIN: How do you see your role? What's next for you?

Mr. KOWSA: I'm doing what I was supposed to be doing if I were inside the country, but now I have a little bit more freedom. So I don't have to self-censor myself as I used to do back in the days before 2003. I know that there are so many red lines that are not supposed to be crossed. It might be funny, but I never draw Ayatollah Khamenei for so many reasons, basically because he's a grand ayatollah, and grand ayatollahs have a lot of followers that are actually part of my audience, as well. So I don't want to humiliate that character for them. So I have to respect their ideas, as well, and I don't attack so many people that my audiences love me to attack. I'm just a simple cartoonist who's trying to push an idea because I know so many of my colleagues inside Iran don't have the chance to do it. So I'm doing my best.

MARTIN: Nikahang Kowsa is an Iranian political cartoonist. He joined us from his home office in Toronto. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KOWSA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And needless to say, we'll have links to the cartoons that we're talking about on our Web site. That's the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.

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