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Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America

4.1 75
by Firoozeh Dumas

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Finalist for the PEN/USA Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and the Audie Award in Biography/Memoir

This Random House Reader’s Circle edition includes a reading group guide and a conversation between Firoozeh Dumas and Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner!


NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Finalist for the PEN/USA Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and the Audie Award in Biography/Memoir

This Random House Reader’s Circle edition includes a reading group guide and a conversation between Firoozeh Dumas and Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner!

“Remarkable . . . told with wry humor shorn of sentimentality . . . In the end, what sticks with the reader is an exuberant immigrant embrace of America.”—San Francisco Chronicle

In 1972, when she was seven, Firoozeh Dumas and her family moved from Iran to Southern California, arriving with no firsthand knowledge of this country beyond her father’s glowing memories of his graduate school years here. More family soon followed, and the clan has been here ever since.

Funny in Farsi chronicles the American journey of Dumas’s wonderfully engaging family: her engineer father, a sweetly quixotic dreamer who first sought riches on Bowling for Dollars and in Las Vegas, and later lost his job during the Iranian revolution; her elegant mother, who never fully mastered English (nor cared to); her uncle, who combated the effects of American fast food with an army of miraculous American weight-loss gadgets; and Firoozeh herself, who as a girl changed her name to Julie, and who encountered a second wave of culture shock when she met and married a Frenchman, becoming part of a one-couple melting pot.

In a series of deftly drawn scenes, we watch the family grapple with American English (hot dogs and hush puppies?—a complete mystery), American traditions (Thanksgiving turkey?—an even greater mystery, since it tastes like nothing), and American culture (Firoozeh’s parents laugh uproariously at Bob Hope on television, although they don’t get the jokes even when she translates them into Farsi).

Above all, this is an unforgettable story of identity, discovery, and the power of family love. It is a book that will leave us all laughing—without an accent.

Praise for Funny in Farsi
“Heartfelt and hilarious—in any language.”Glamour
“A joyful success.”Newsday
“What’s charming beyond the humor of this memoir is that it remains affectionate even in the weakest, most tenuous moments for the culture. It’s the brilliance of true sophistication at work.”Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Often hilarious, always interesting . . . Like the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, this book describes with humor the intersection and overlapping of two cultures.”The Providence Journal
“A humorous and introspective chronicle of a life filled with love—of family, country, and heritage.”—Jimmy Carter
“Delightfully refreshing.”—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“[Funny in Farsi] brings us closer to discovering what it means to be an American.”San Jose Mercury News

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Heartfelt and hilarious—in any language.”—Glamour
“A joyful success.”—Newsday
“Remarkable . . . told with wry humor shorn of sentimentality . . . In the end, what sticks with the reader is an exuberant immigrant embrace of America.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“What’s charming beyond the humor of this memoir is that it remains affectionate even in the weakest, most tenuous moments for the culture. It’s the brilliance of true sophistication at work.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Often hilarious, always interesting . . . Like the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, this book describes with humor the intersection and overlapping of two cultures.”—The Providence Journal
“A humorous and introspective chronicle of a life filled with love—of family, country, and heritage.”—Jimmy Carter
“Delightfully refreshing.”—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“[Funny in Farsi] brings us closer to discovering what it means to be an American.”—San Jose Mercury News
The Barnes & Noble Review
When seven-year-old Firoozeh Dumas's family moved to Whittier, California, from Iran in 1972, they didn't plan to stay. A former graduate student in Texas, Dumas's father had strong memories of America and wanted his children to spend some time growing up in the land of spotless freeway rest stops and grocery store sample trays laden with pigs-in-blanket. After several years, they returned to their homeland, only to be swept up in the Iranian Revolution. With so much uncertainty about life in Iran, the family moved back to Southern California for good, and aunts, uncles, and cousins soon followed. Dumas depicts her and her relatives' encounters with American culture in comic vignettes that reveal a wonderful storytelling talent. From her uncle's discovery of fast food (and then, predictably, fad diets) to her father's insistence on performing his own imperfect home repairs to her own adoption of the first name Julie, Dumas turns anecdotes into amusing episodes that also illustrate the challenges of assimilating while trying to retain the unique cultural characteristics that make us all different. Katherine Hottinger
The New Yorker
The Turkish novelist and translator Güneli Gün grew up on an Aegean island once used to quarantine pilgrims returning from Mecca. In Remembering Childhood in the Middle East: Memoirs From A Century of Change, an anthology edited by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, Gün recalls her anger at her parents' refusal to love Quarantine Island. Her mother missed cosmopolitan social life; her father, a doctor, ridiculed his staff and railed about " 'the agony of the East,' by which he meant the scientific backwardness he believed Islam had 'brought upon' us."

Amid the jarring disruptions of life in Tehran during the nineteen-eighties, Marjane Satrapi could at least confide in her parents. Her comic-book memoir, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, describes her pain at seeing her country descend into fundamentalism and violence. Satrapi was patriotic; she was relieved to see her father cheer when the BBC confirmed that Iranian bombers had hit Baghdad. Later, though, the slogans scrawled on city walls "To die a martyr is to inject blood into the veins of society") made her fearful that the country's turn toward bellicosity was too extreme.

Firoozeh Dumas' family left Iran permanently in 1976, and missed the seismic shifts back home. In Funny In Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian In America, Dumas remembers how in 1977 her parents accepted an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to welcome the Shah. Undeterred by a threatening note slipped under their hotel-room door ("Dear Brainwashed Cowards, You are nothing but puppets of the corrupt Shah . . ."), the family finally reassessed the trip after demonstrators attacked Iranians on a lawn near the White House with nail-studded sticks. Their response? To take the first flight back to California. (Kate Taylor)
Publishers Weekly
This lighthearted memoir chronicles the author's move from Iran to America in 1971 at age seven, the antics of her extended family and her eventual marriage to a Frenchman. The best parts will make readers laugh out loud, as when she arrives in Newport Beach, Calif., "a place where one's tan is a legitimate topic of conversation." She is particularly good making gentle fun of her father, who loves Disneyland and once competed on the game show Bowling for Dollars. Many of the book's jokes, though, are groan inducing, as in, "the only culture that my father was interested in was the kind in yogurt." And the book is off-kilter structurally. After beginning with a string of amusing anecdotes from her family's first years stateside, one five-page chapter lurches from seventh grade in California to an ever so brief mention of the Iranian revolution, and then back to California, college and meeting her husband. In addition, while politics are understandably not Dumas's topic, the way she skates over the subject can seem disingenuous. Following the revolution, did her father really turn down the jobs offered to him in Iran only because "none were within his field of interest"? Despite unevenness, Dumas's first book remains a warm, witty and sometimes poignant look at cross-cultural misunderstanding and family life. Immigrants from anywhere are likely to identify with her chronicle of adapting to America. (On sale June 17) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Dumas enters the well-populated world of memoirs here but does so with memorable style and wit that will entertain the most reluctant of teen readers. She describes her unique childhood as an Iranian-born outsider in America's suburbs, dealing with teasing from classmates and adults alike, anti-Iranian prejudice, being a "secular ham-eating Muslim" in a predominantly Christian society, and being part of a wacky family enthralled with America's splendors, as exemplified by Disneyland, Bob Hope, and Price Club. From early childhood as a girl renamed "Julie" to adulthood, Dumas's biography conveys well the struggles with language, culture, and ethnic issues common to many immigrant families. Although much of the memoir takes place in the 1970s and 1980s and includes historical issues, readers will find many parallels to today's conflicts. For example, when anti-Iranian emotions run high in the late 1970s, Dumas's family pretends to be Russian or Turkish to end persistent questions and interrogations from American strangers. Dumas's challenges are conveyed with wit, exemplified by a friend bringing her to show-and-tell, greatly disappointing the teacher who was expecting a Peruvian student. Much of the quirky material sounds as if it would fit well on NPR's This American Life. Aimed at an adult audience, this memoir will nonetheless appeal to teen readers struggling with fitting in and finding a place in mainstream society. The vocabulary and subject matter might appeal more to older readers in this book that is recommended for public libraries and high schools. VOYA Codes: 4Q 3P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Will appeal with pushing; Senior High, defined asgrades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed book recommended for Young Adults). 2003, Villard, 187p.; Illus., and Trade pb. Ages 15 to Adult.
—Lora Morgaine Shinn
Library Journal
Dumas, who first came to America from Iran as a young girl in 1972, recounts many anecdotes about her family's adjustment to this country in a light, humorous style. Detailed here are her uncle's encounter with all-American fast food (with disastrous consequences for his waistline) and her father's penchant for pursuing freebies wherever he could find them. Though the tone stays gentle, Dumas also includes darker episodes, such as her father's inability to find a job during the Iran hostage crisis and her family's nearly being beaten by protesters when they are in Washington, DC, to welcome the shah. Dumas also provides a few glimpses of middle-class life in prerevolutionary Iran, where her father enjoyed watching American Westerns as a boy and her uncle was a successful doctor. Today, as Middle Easterners in the United States are subject to racial profiling, stereotyping, and sometimes violence, this book provides a valuable glimpse into the immigrant experiences of one very entertaining family. Recommended for public libraries.-Debra Moore, Cerritos Coll., Norwalk, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Dumas first came to the U.S. from Iran in the early '70s when her father was sent to California on a two-year contract from the National Iranian Oil Company. Her family soon discovered that his presumed skill in English was basically limited to "vectors, surface tension and fluid mechanics." In short, humorous vignettes, the author recounts their resulting difficulties and Americans' almost total ignorance of Iran, illustrating the kindness of people and her father's absolute love of this country. After a brief return to Iran, they came back. This time, however, they were mistrusted and vilified, as a result of the Iranian hostage crisis. Her father lost his job and was forced to sell most of their possessions. Even this harsh treatment didn't diminish his love for the U.S., and they later reestablished themselves, though with a lower standard of living. Throughout, Dumas writes with a light touch, even when, after having been flown to DC by the state department to welcome the shah, they faced death threats and had to leave town. Her descriptions of American culture and her experiences with school, TV, and language (she was once called "Fritzy DumbAss" by a receptionist) could be the observations of anyone new to this country, and her humor allows natives and nonnatives alike to look at America with new insight.-Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, Chantilly, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Light-as-air essays about an immigrant childhood in California. In 1972, Dumas’s father, an employee of the Iranian National Oil Company, which had landed a two-year consulting contract with an American firm, came to the US and brought along the entire family. Although the adventure in their new country begins with the author and her mother getting lost after elementary-school orientation, the Dumases rapidly embrace their new home: Las Vegas becomes their default vacation destination, and they spend every Christmas watching Bob Hope. The author has the usual problems of a stranger in a strange land—nobody can pronounce her name or has any awareness of her homeland—but Dumas tosses in some new ones as well: the communal showers at sleep-away camp (she doesn’t bathe for a week) and the disappointment when her father fails to qualify as a contestant on Bowling for Dollars. But these trials pale in comparison to the family’s difficulties during the hostage crisis. As vendors begin selling T-shirts that read "Iranians go Home," Dumas’s father loses his job and his pension and is forced to sell all the family's belongings. After the crisis ends, he does find a new job, at half his previous salary, but nothing mars his love for his adopted country; Dumas recounts his thoughts on US citizens who shirk their civic duties: "They need to be sent for six months to a nondemocratic country. Then they'll vote." At all times, no matter how heavy the subject matter, Dumas keeps her tone light. Even a disastrous trip to Washington, D.C., to welcome the Shah, complete with death threats from protestors, is played for laughs. Warm and engaging, despite some creaky prose. Agent: Bonnie Nadell

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Random House Publishing Group
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14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Leffingwell Elementary School

When I was seven, my parents, my fourteen-year-old brother, Farshid, and I moved from Abadan, Iran, to Whittier, California. Farid, the older of my two brothers, had been sent to Philadelphia the year before to attend high school. Like most Iranian youths, he had always dreamed of attending college abroad and, despite my mother's tears, had left us to live with my uncle and his American wife. I, too, had been sad at Farid's departure, but my sorrow soon faded-not coincidentally, with the receipt of a package from him. Suddenly, having my brother on a different continent seemed like a small price to pay for owning a Barbie complete with a carrying case and four outfits, including the rain gear and mini umbrella.

Our move to Whittier was temporary. My father, Kazem, an engineer with the National Iranian Oil Company, had been assigned to consult for an American firm for about two years. Having spent several years in Texas and California as a graduate student, my father often spoke about America with the eloquence and wonder normally reserved for a first love. To him, America was a place where anyone, no matter how humble his background, could become an important person. It was a kind and orderly nation full of clean bathrooms, a land where traffic laws were obeyed and where whales jumped through hoops. It was the Promised Land. For me, it was where I could buy more outfits for Barbie.

We arrived in Whittier shortly after the start of second grade; my father enrolled me in Leffingwell Elementary School. To facilitate my adjustment, the principal arranged for us to meet my new teacher, Mrs. Sandberg, a few days before I started school. Since my mother and I did not speak English, the meeting consisted of a dialogue between my father and Mrs. Sandberg. My father carefully explained that I had attended a prestigious kindergarten where all the children were taught English. Eager to impress Mrs. Sandberg, he asked me to demonstrate my knowledge of the English language. I stood up straight and proudly recited all that I knew: "White, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green."

The following Monday, my father drove my mother and me to school. He had decided that it would be a good idea for my mother to attend school with me for a few weeks. I could not understand why two people not speaking English would be better than one, but I was seven, and my opinion didn't matter much.

Until my first day at Leffingwell Elementary School, I had never thought of my mother as an embarrassment, but the sight of all the kids in the school staring at us before the bell rang was enough to make me pretend I didn't know her. The bell finally rang and Mrs. Sandberg came and escorted us to class. Fortunately, she had figured out that we were precisely the kind of people who would need help finding the right classroom.

My mother and I sat in the back while all the children took their assigned seats. Everyone continued to stare at us. Mrs. Sandberg wrote my name on the board: F-I-R-O-O-Z-E-H. Under my name, she wrote "I-R-A-N." She then pulled down a map of the world and said something to my mom. My mom looked at me and asked me what she had said. I told her that the teacher probably wanted her to find Iran on the map.

The problem was that my mother, like most women of her generation, had been only briefly educated. In her era, a girl's sole purpose in life was to find a husband. Having an education ranked far below more desirable attributes such as the ability to serve tea or prepare baklava. Before her marriage, my mother, Nazireh, had dreamed of becoming a midwife. Her father, a fairly progressive man, had even refused the two earlier suitors who had come for her so that his daughter could pursue her dream. My mother planned to obtain her diploma, then go to Tabriz to learn midwifery from a teacher whom my grandfather knew. Sadly, the teacher died unexpectedly, and my mother's dreams had to be buried as well.

Bachelor No. 3 was my father. Like the other suitors, he had never spoken to my mother, but one of his cousins knew someone who knew my mother's sister, so that was enough. More important, my mother fit my father's physical requirements for a wife. Like most Iranians, my father preferred a fair-skinned woman with straight, light-colored hair. Having spent a year in America as a Fulbright scholar, he had returned with a photo of a woman he found attractive and asked his older sister, Sedigeh, to find someone who resembled her. Sedigeh had asked around, and that is how at age seventeen my mother officially gave up her dreams, married my father, and had a child by the end of the year.

As the students continued staring at us, Mrs. Sandberg gestured to my mother to come up to the board. My mother reluctantly obeyed. I cringed. Mrs. Sandberg, using a combination of hand gestures, started pointing to the map and saying, "Iran? Iran? Iran?" Clearly, Mrs. Sandberg had planned on incorporating us into the day's lesson. I only wished she had told us that earlier so we could have stayed home.

After a few awkward attempts by my mother to find Iran on the map, Mrs. Sandberg finally understood that it wasn't my mother's lack of English that was causing a problem, but rather her lack of world geography. Smiling graciously, she pointed my mother back to her seat. Mrs. Sandberg then showed everyone, including my mother and me, where Iran was on the map. My mother nodded her head, acting as if she had known the location all along, but had preferred to keep it a secret. Now all the students stared at us, not just because I had come to school with my mother, not because we couldn't speak their language, but because we were stupid. I was especially mad at my mother, because she had negated the positive impression I had made previously by reciting the color wheel. I decided that starting the next day, she would have to stay home.

The bell finally rang and it was time for us to leave. Leffingwell Elementary was just a few blocks from our house and my father, grossly underestimating our ability to get lost, had assumed that my mother and I would be able to find our way home. She and I wandered aimlessly, perhaps hoping for a shooting star or a talking animal to help guide us back. None of the streets or houses looked familiar. As we stood pondering our predicament, an enthusiastic young girl came leaping out of her house and said something. Unable to understand her, we did what we had done all day: we smiled. The girl's mother joined us, then gestured for us to follow her inside. I assumed that the girl, who appeared to be the same age as I, was a student at Leffingwell Elementary; having us inside her house was probably akin to having the circus make a personal visit.

Her mother handed us a telephone, and my mother, who had, thankfully, memorized my father's work number, called him and explained our situation. My father then spoke to the American woman and gave her our address. This kind stranger agreed to take us back to our house.

Perhaps fearing that we might show up at their doorstep again, the woman and her daughter walked us all the way to our front porch and even helped my mother unlock the unfamiliar door. After making one last futile attempt at communication, they waved good-bye. Unable to thank them in words, we smiled even more broadly.

After spending an entire day in America, surrounded by Americans, I realized that my father's description of America had been correct. The bathrooms were clean and the people were very, very kind.

Hot Dogs and Wild Geese

Moving to America was both exciting and frightening, but we found great comfort in knowing that my father spoke English. Having spent years regaling us with stories about his graduate years in America, he had left us with the distinct impression that America was his second home. My mother and I planned to stick close to him, letting him guide us through the exotic American landscape that he knew so well. We counted on him not only to translate the language but also to translate the culture, to be a link to this most foreign of lands. He was to be our own private Rosetta stone.

Once we reached America, we wondered whether perhaps my father had confused his life in America with someone else's. Judging from the bewildered looks of store cashiers, gas station attendants, and waiters, my father spoke a version of English not yet shared with the rest of America. His attempts to find a "vater closet" in a department store would usually lead us to the drinking fountain or the home furnishings section. Asking my father to ask the waitress the definition of "sloppy Joe" or "Tater Tots" was no problem. His translations, however, were highly suspect. Waitresses would spend several minutes responding to my father's questions, and these responses, in turn, would be translated as "She doesn't know." Thanks to my father's translations, we stayed away from hot dogs, catfish, and hush puppies, and no amount of caviar in the sea would have convinced us to try mud pie.

We wondered how my father had managed to spend several years attending school in America, yet remain so utterly befuddled by Americans. We soon discovered that his college years had been spent mainly in the library, where he had managed to avoid contact with all Americans except his engineering professors. As long as the conversation was limited to vectors, surface tension, and fluid mechanics, my father was Fred Astaire with words. But one step outside the scintillating world of petroleum engineering and he had two left tongues.

My father's only other regular contact in college had been his roommate, a Pakistani who spent his days preparing curry. Since neither spoke English, but both liked curries, they got along splendidly. The person who had assigned them together had probably hoped they would either learn English or invent a common language for the occasion. Neither happened.

Meet the Author

Firoozeh Dumas was born in Abadan, Iran, and moved to California at the age of seven. After a two-year stay, she and her family moved back to Iran and resided in Ahvaz and Tehran. Two years later, Dumas returned to California, where she later attended the University of California at Berkeley.
Funny in Farsi was a finalist for both the PEN/USA Award in 2004 and the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and has been adopted in junior high, high school and college curricula throughout the nation. It has been selected for common reading programs at several universities including: California State Bakersfield, California State University at Sacramento, Fairmont State University in West Virginia, Gallaudet University, Salisbury University, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Dumas is also the author of Laughing Without an Accent, a collection of autobiographical essays published in May 2008. She currently lives with her husband and their three children in Northern California.

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Funny in Farsi 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 75 reviews.
Cheryl44CP More than 1 year ago
It is kind of interesting, but not really funny. I think it would have been better if she wasn't trying for laughs.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. Firoozeh's family stories were endearing, and I look forward to reading more of her work. This was fun to read, and funny, too!
GSmomLD More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved his book! It was very funny and easy to read. I didn't want it to end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderful collection of family stories
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I learned a lot and laughed often
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im a 13 year old Iranian girl and I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Coming from an Iranian background, I understand what it's like for Firoozeh. Great read!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written ...Quick read.
laamarc More than 1 year ago
This book had me laughing out loud. The stories made wish I had a big close family.
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