In a book-lined study in a rented house in the Georgian town of Gori, Keyomars Marzban, 25, puts on a blue fedora, metal-rimmed granny glasses and prepares to record a talk show for the independent, London-based, Iranian satellite channel Manoto TV.
Kya, as he prefers to be called, will be discussing his defeat in Iran’s recent presidential elections, a contest in which the writer-activist only managed to gather some 200 votes. But he still considers it a victory. A writer for Manoto TV, Kya used his presidential campaign to advocate on social media for Iran to legalize soft drugs and pre-marital sex, grant LGBT rights and religious freedoms, plus the “essential rights to party.” He did so, however, from a safe distance.
The writer of a critically acclaimed web-comic series on sex education and cybersecurity, Kya has lived in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, since March. He joins a growing number of Iranians who see the nearby Caucasus country, once partly controlled by the Persian Empire, as a place where they can be themselves.
In 2016, over 147,900 Iranians traveled to Georgia, according to the Georgian National Tourism Administration -- a 485.3% increase since 2015, when visa requirements were dropped. Some are tourists, others are fleeing persecution by the Iranian government, while still others just want a business-friendly country in which to live.
In Kya’s case, it’s all about freedom of expression.
Along with a team of London-based designers and programmers, Kya last year co-created a six-episode, black-and-white online graphic novel Jensiat (meaning “gender” and “sex” in Farsi) to address sex education – or, rather, its complete absence in Iran. He claims that most male Iranians get their sex education from pornography alone; a trend that distorts their concepts about sexuality, he says.
The novel features three main characters: Leila, an activist in her early 30s who has returned to Iran after years of residing in Paris; Jamshid, an internet-security expert educated in Paris; and Shirin, a Tehran-based sexologist.
Like the creators of Jensiat.io, the trio tries to tackle Iran’s lack of sex awareness by launching a sex-ed website. The site’s popularity alarms the Iranian authorities who send security-service officers to warn the three young people. The group refuses a bribe to collaborate on the project with the government. The last episode ends with a cliffhanger when Jamshid gets arrested and imprisoned for defying the government’s demands.
Kya also uses Jensiat to try and raise awareness about cybersecurity, an area about which he claims ordinary Iranians also know little, often using relatively unsafe channels, such as Telegram, to share sensitive information. Parts of the cartoon target how government surveillance slows connection speeds in Iran.
This year, the series, which claimed to have received 1.2 million unique visitors since its 2016 launch, was a finalist in the non-profit Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Awards. Though no longer actively updated, Jensiat.io has been blocked in Iran, which Kya considers an accomplishment of sorts. It has not, however, increased the chances that he can safely live in Iran – he claims that he regularly receives death threats from Iranian conservatives via Facebook and other social-media platforms.
Some observers claim, though, that limits for freedom of expression exist in Georgia as well. Members of the rap group Birja Mafia, for instance, recently found themselves facing narcotics charges after releasing a video showing a policeman on a leash. The rappers deny the charges, which they claim were intended to shut them up.
Sex-education is another controversial topic for many in tradition-bound Georgia, as is the growing number of visitors from Muslim countries. Concerns about what the steady influx of foreigners means for Georgian cultural identity have led to demonstrations in Tbilisi by nationalist radicals and a few attacks on businesses frequented by foreigners.
Kya, however, prefers to focus on the positive. Georgia’s vibrant community of young artists, working in a post-Soviet country with deeply rooted folk traditions, are what drew him here from his former outpost, Malaysia. Though he hopes one day to return to his homeland, he says he plans to stay in Georgia for years.
Like in Iran, Kya believes that any conflicts here over freedom of expression only help strengthen artists and their work. He recalls a poem (“Inevitable Growth”) by Khosrow Golsorkhi, a left-wing Iranian poet executed in 1974.
But what can you do with the inevitable growth of sprouts?
As an artist, Kya, too, appears determined to keep on growing.
Credit:  Jensiat.io is a collaborative, creative-commons-license project with Smallmedia.org.uk, which designed and developed the website and provided the animations. Excerpts from Jensiat’s chapter 6 and chapter 1were republished here with permission from Smallmedia.org.uk.
Produced by Mahsa Alimardani
Illustration by Vahid Fazel
Writing by Kioomars Marzban