09 September 2003
"Funny in Farsi" Adds Humor To Iranian-American Experience
Firoozeh Dumas' first book portrays her acquisition of American culture
By Steve Holgate
Washington -- "When I was seven, my parents, my fourteen year-old brother, Farshid, and I moved from Abadan, Iran to Whittier, California."
So begins the highly acclaimed new book by the first time Iranian-American author, Firoozeh Dumas. Like most adventures stories, the book begins simply. Unlike most, it has no galloping horses or swordplay, no enchanted forests or imprisoned princess. "Funny In Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up in America" is, instead, a more adult adventure about negotiating the difficult transition from one culture to another, the task of respecting traditional values while becoming part of a new and highly modern society. It is about the great challenge of taking on a new identity without losing the old one.
In this brief and often laugh-out-loud memoir, Firoozeh Dumas tells about her life growing up in two cultures. In the early chapters of the book she shares with her readers the thrill as well as the difficulties of arriving in the United States in 1972 as a seven year-old schoolgirl, making a new home in a place that seems both a wonderland of Mickey Mouse and Barbie dolls and a baffling maze of strange customs and a new language. She speaks of the kindness of many new neighbors to an immigrant family from a place about which most of them knew little, if anything - though one man assured them, "I know all about Iran. I've seen 'Lawrence of Arabia.'"
The difficulties of grade school and her parents' struggles with the language of their adoptive country seem, as described by Dumas, both painful and hilarious. Her father, perhaps the strongest presence in the book, was a petroleum engineer who had come years earlier to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar and longed for the chance to return one day with his family. He never loses his sense of wonder at the endless opportunities and surprises that America has to offer. These surprises often seem less wondrous to his family, and his surprising inability to speak good English, even after his time there as a student, makes Firoozeh, for one, wonder if he had lived in some other United States that they had not yet seen. Nor does he lose his fascination for saving money in every conceivable way. When a family member visits, her father immediately offers to take him out to lunch, which turns out to be a stop by the local grocery story, where they graze on the variety of small free samples often offered on weekends in American grocery stores.
Despite his occasionally quixotic ways, he also possesses deep wells of wisdom. Years after their arrival in the United States he began to return regularly to Iran with his wife. Though they are far from wealthy by American standards, he uses his Iranian pension to help the needy in Iran and to enjoy a few luxuries. On his return to the United States after one such trip, Dumas asked him if it was difficult to come back after living so well during his trip to Iran. "But, Firoozeh," he replied, "I'm a rich man in America, too. I just don't have much money."
Her mother is a firm but quieter presence. Though fascinated by the game shows on television, she seems at first more skeptical of her new world. When American acquaintances lavish praise on young Firoozeh for her facility in translating both Farsi and English for her parents, her mother simply observes, "Americans are easily impressed."
The book takes Firoozeh through high school and college to her marriage with a young French immigrant, with whom she makes a new home in California, but never loses sight of her family. The book relates her father's boundless enthusiasm and optimism, her mother's more guarded appreciation of their new country, the reactions of her brother and a series of visiting relatives, until it is clear that the book is as much about them as her -- and most of all about their adventure together in making a life in their new country.
Not every experience is pleasant. During the revolution, Dumas says, she felt the sting of Americans' understandable but unreasonable anger toward everything Iranian. In more recent years, these emotions have faded and she observes a greater knowledge of the region among her American friends.
More remarkable even than Dumas' humorous and touching story is the way that it has touched American audiences. In a recent telephone interview from her home in Northern California she sounds exactly as her readers might hope, friendly, humorous and full of energy. The reaction to her book, she says, "has been phenomenal." American readers have loved the book and critics have praised it. Dumas, who recently returned from a promotional tour for the book, says that she has also received a flood of e-mails from around the world, particularly from the Middle East and Iran, who have read about the book and its reception. (It is not yet in Farsi translation, due in part to the fact that Iran does not belong to international copyright conventions.) "They are thrilled that this is a book about people, not politics," Dumas says. "I'm struck that people from all walks of life relate to it."
Naturally, Dumas says, Iranian-Americans have especially enjoyed the book. Iranians "have a very developed sense of humor that most Americans are not aware of," she says.
Dumas seems especially pleased that, through her book, "Iranians, Americans and others are being brought together by laughter." In the book, she says, "I wanted to show my respect for both cultures. I sincerely believe that we have something to learn from each other." Iranians, she says, "put emphasis on family. Things like hospitality and generosity are woven into our culture." But, Dumas says, "the thing that is great about America is that you can pursue your dream. I came here. I wrote a book published by the biggest publishing house in America because it was good." She laughs as she adds, "I am the American dream."
Dumas says that the inspiration of the book came from her father. "He was always a great story-teller. I felt like I grew up with him," she says, "So, when I had kids, I wanted my children to know why I am here, who I am."
Her father, she says, also had a dream, "He dreamed that someday he would return to America with his own children. And they, the children of an engineer from Abadan, would have access to the same educational opportunities as anybody else, even the sons of senators and the rich. It was a dream that my brothers and I were honored to fulfill." That education and the opportunities it has offered have allowed his children to follow their dreams and have helped him to realize his. With feet planted firmly in two cultures they all continue to follow their dreams.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)