Politics, cartoons and more: an interview with Nikahang Kowsar
By Fariba Amini, IJNet Persian editor
Nikahang Kowsar, an Iranian cartoonist, radio producer, news-wire editor, blogger and photographer, recently attended a conference hosted by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), which brought together journalists to discuss social, economic, and political issues in Iran.
The goal of the conference, titled “Iran 360˚: Exploring Politics, Economics and Society in a Global Hot Spot,” was to “get past some of the myths and two-dimensional perceptions of Iran,” said Joyce Barnathan, the President of ICFJ, during her opening remarks at the conference.
Nikahang Kowsar <img alt=" vspace=" align="right" border="1" src="/images/page/article/NK.jpg" />
To that end, forty-three American journalists and reporters from various news agencies and newspapers as well Iranians, Iran experts and others attended the program, held April 1 to 2 outside of Washington, D.C.
Kowsar’s politically flavored presentation, which had the audience both laughing and crying, provided a glimpse into the unique life experience of this accomplished cartoonist.
Kowsar, who began his press career in 1991, immigrated to Canada in 2003 after facing what he describes as “pressure” from the Iranian judiciary.
Just months after arriving in Canada, Kowsar had found another "press" job: "Working at a dry cleaners, pressing people's shirts!"
In Iran, "I was 'pressed' and in Canada, became 'depressed'," he jokes.
Now, he is known for portraying politics through caricatures and cartoons. He has been featured in the New York Times, Newsweek magazine, the Washington Post and many other major U.S. and international news outlets.
Kowsar has won many awards including the 2001 international "Courage for Editorial Cartooning" from the Cartoonists Rights Network. He also received the second prize in Canada's National Press Club editorial cartoon contest in 2001 as well as Iran’s National Press Awards in 1996, 1999, 2000 and 2002. In 1995, he was a recipient of an Honorary Diploma from the International Caricature contest in Italy.
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He is a regular contributor to Roozonline and works with the Dutch-based radio station “Radio Zamaneh.”
IJNet recently had a chance to speak to this accomplished, lively cartoonist.
IJNet: How did you begin your career as a cartoonist?
NK: I was a geology student at the University of Tehran and had a few professors who looked liked dinosaurs! A little bit of talent helped me draw caricatures of those wonderful models. A copy of my artwork ended up at the office of an editor of Gol-Agha, Iran's leading satirical magazine. They called me and after a few weeks, I was hired. This was in 1991.
IJNet: Who has inspired you in your life?
NK: I think both my parents. My mom was a painter, and I didn't like her style! So I tried to take a different path. My dad is a soil scientist, and somehow relates to geology and hydrogeology. I attended a drawing course while getting my BS, and then moved on to cartooning. In a way, they both motivated me.
IJNet: What do you do at Radio Zamaneh and tell us how this radio station started?
NK: I'm a producer and reporter for Radio Zamaneh. I produce my own show, Kalaghestoon. I play five characters; three of them are crows. I also impersonate a number of politicians.
In June 2006, Mehdi Jami, a former BBC producer, asked me to join this new Radio that is actually a "Bloggers' Radio." I've been a member of the team since July 2006. Radio Zamaneh is funded by the Dutch government.
IJNet: Your cartoons are both political and satirical. Do you also do cartoons other than those that have a political connotation?
NK: Actually most of my cartoons are political these days. I used to do some gag, but these days, my mind is so focused on Iranian politics that I try to avoid any other type of cartooning. I also used to draw caricatures, and still do from time to time.
IJNet: You told a story about Daniel Pearl at the conference; you became tearful, and you made me and others cry. What was that story about?
NK: It's sad to talk about Danny. I met Daniel Pearl for the first time in February 2000, just after getting out of prison because of a cartoon I had drawn two weeks before that day. Two years later, after Danny was abducted, a fixer in Tehran told me that my cartoon was somehow related to Danny's trip to Tehran in 2000. Pearl had gone to the fixer's office, and the fixer had made a joke about Danny's big suitcase in front of a cleric, saying that the American reporter had brought millions of dollars to bribe Iranian journalists against Islam. The cleric took this joke seriously and called his superior, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi [a conservative Iranian cleric]. Mesbah Yazdi later announced that a chief CIA operative was in Tehran with a big suitcase full of dollars to bribe reformist mercenary journalists against Islam. A journalist criticized the Ayatollah for his pre-emptive attack, and I drew a few cartoons. One of these cartoons caused a huge crisis and as a result I was imprisoned in Evin prison.
I met Danny several times, but never thought of the coincidence. When the fixer told me the story, it was too late to get Danny's side of the story. I'm not even sure if Danny ever heard about it. Nobody can give me a straight answer. This has been haunting me since his tragic death.
IJNet: How do you view the Iranian TV and radio stations in the U.S. that broadcast to Iran?
NK: VOA (Persian) and Radio Farda [Radio Free Europe-Persian] have an agenda, and are well funded to gradually change the attitude of the Iranian audience against the Islamic Republic. I don't call this journalism. It's propaganda. Other channels are just good for entertaining the public. That's all. They are wasting a lot of time, money and energy.
IJNet: What are some of the weaknesses of journalism in Iran in your view?
NK: Many Iranian journalists are actually party members and cannot remain independent. Many act as public relations personalities rather than reporters. Remaining independent is really difficult and sometimes harmful. In Iran, journalists may have freedom of speech, but never experience freedom after speech!
To view some of Nikahang’s cartoons visit the following links: