Iran's cartoonist Mana Neyestani poses with his album entitled “Une metamorphose iranienne”. - AFP Photo

ANGOULEM: Iranian dissident cartoonist Mana Neyestani says drawing has been his salvation and a weapon to combat his own personal demons as well as Tehran's hardline Islamist regime.

Neyestani's autobiographical comic book “An Iranian Metamorphosis,” a Kafkaesque story recounting his jailing in Iran over a cartoon depicting a cockroach that sparked riots in 2006, is due to hit stores on February 16.

“With this book, I wanted to share my experiences but also to forget my worst nightmares, when I was arrested in 2006,” said Neyestani, who has been in exile for the past five years and last month applied for political asylum in France.

“I protest against the regime with my drawings.” An Iranian Metamorphosis, the latest graphic novel by the Tehran-born 38-year-old, will be published in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and there are also negotiations for its publication in the United States.

“I always loved to draw, since my childhood,” the award-winning illustrator told AFP at the world's biggest cartoon strip and comics festival in Angouleme in western France last month.

Neyestani was jailed in Tehran's notorious Evin prison in 2006 over a cartoon published in the children's section of the governmental Iran newspaper which showed a boy repeating the Farsi word for cockroach in different ways -- while a cockroach in front of him asked “What?” in Azeri.

The cartoon triggered riots between Iran's large Azeri minority -- people of Turkish origin living mainly in the north of the country -- and the majority ethnic Persian population.

Neyestani, who is not Azeri, says he was picked up and flung into solitary confinement in Evin along with the newspaper's editor, accused of sparking tensions between Iranian communities and threatening state security.

Amnesty International said in a report in 2007 that 19 people were reported killed in the unrest and hundreds arrested.

“Every day they told me 'Look, you killed this or that number of demonstrators.' It was a moral torture,” Neyestani said of his time behind bars.

“I've never been physically tortured, but political prisoners are tortured since 2009,” he said, in reference to those jailed since the massive protests against the controversial June 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

-- 'Anything could happen' --

After three months in jail, Neyestani says he managed to secure a temporary release and decided to flee his homeland.

“With my wife, we bought tickets for a three-day trip to Dubai,” he said, adding that the couple were on tenterhooks while leaving, praying that the authorities would not latch on to their plan to skip the country.

But the “Emirates didn't support me,” he said.

So a very long trip began, taking him to Turkey, China and then to Malaysia, where he lived from 2007, doing illustrations for dissident Iranian websites, until his move to the French capital a year ago.

His move was sponsored by the International Cities of Refuge Network, which offers “persecuted writers a safe haven where they can live and work without fear of being censored or silenced”, according to its website.

Neyestani, an architect by training, began working as a cartoonist and illustrator in 1990 for a variety of magazines in Iran and with the rise of reformist newspapers in Iran he became a political cartoonist.

He published his first book in 2000 but was then confined to working for children's magazines as his work was deemed to be overtly political. He has won numerous Iranian and international awards.

France is also home to the Iranian-born Marjane Satrapi, who directed the film version of her autobiographical work “Persepolis” that tells the story of the Iranian revolution and the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini through the eyes of a precocious young girl.

The French edition of Neyestani's book defiantly features cockroaches on both the front and back covers and is a theme throughout the work.

“My next book will focus on 2009 protests. I will not appear in it. I'm not a big fan of autobiographical books,” he said.

Neyestani's mother and one of his two brothers still live in Iran.

“So far my family in Tehran has not been harassed by the authorities but the Iranian regime is unpredictable. Anything could happen.” As for an eventual return to his homeland, he said: “I could go back to Iran... but it will end by me being thrown in jail.”

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