Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad

Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad

by Firoozeh Dumas
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Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad by Firoozeh Dumas

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “There’s such warmth to Dumas’ writing that it invites the reader to pull up a seat at her table and smile right along with her at the quirks of her family and Iranians and Americans in general.”Booklist

In the New York Times bestselling memoir Funny in Farsi, Firoozeh Dumas recounted her adventures growing up Iranian American in Southern California. Now she again mines her rich Persian heritage in Laughing Without an Accent, sharing stories both tender and humorous on being a citizen of the world, on her well-meaning family, and on amusing cultural conundrums, all told with insights into the universality of the human condition. (Hint: It may have to do with brushing and flossing daily.)

With dry wit and a bold spirit, Dumas puts her own unique mark on the themes of family, community, and tradition. She braves the uncommon palate of her French-born husband and learns the nuances of having her book translated for Persian audiences (the censors edit out all references to ham). And along the way, she reconciles her beloved Iranian customs with her Western ideals.

Explaining crossover cultural food fare, Dumas says, “The weirdest American culinary marriage is yams with melted marshmallows. I don’t know who thought of this Thanksgiving tradition, but I’m guessing a hyperactive, toothless three-year-old.” On Iranian wedding anniversaries: “It just initially seemed odd to celebrate the day that ‘our families decided we should marry even though I had never met you, and frankly, it’s not working out so well.’” On trying to fit in with her American peers: “At the time, my father drove a Buick LeSabre, a fancy French word meaning ‘OPEC thanks you.’”

Dumas also documents her first year as a new mother, the familial chaos that ensues after she removes the television set from the house, the experience of taking fifty-one family members on a birthday cruise to Alaska, and a road trip to Iowa with an American once held hostage in Iran.

Droll, moving, and relevant, Laughing Without an Accent shows how our differences can unite us—and provides indelible proof that Firoozeh Dumas is a humorist of the highest order.

Praise for Laughing Without an Accent
“Dumas is one of those rare people: a naturally gifted storyteller.”—Alexander McCall Smith
Laughing Without an Accent is written . . . as if Dumas were sharing a cup of coffee with her reader as she relates her comic tales. . . . Firoozeh Dumas exudes undeniable charm [as she] reveals a zeal for culture—both new and old—and the enduring bonds of a family filled with outsize personalities.”San Francisco Chronicle
“[Dumas is] like a blend of Anne Lamott and Erma Bombeck.”Bust
“Humorous without being sentimental, [Dumas] speaks to the American experience.”The Plain Dealer

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345499578
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/11/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 262,705
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

Funny in Persian

Iran does not currently adhere to international copyright laws. This comes as a shock to most people, given Iran’s law-abiding image.

Not adhering to international copyright laws means that any book, regardless of origin, can be translated into Persian and sold in Iran. No matter how poorly a book might be translated, the author has no control. No artist wants his name on a work that does not represent him fairly, but in Iran, tell it to the judge, and he doesn’t care. When Abbas Milani, a very well respected author and professor, found a Persian translation of his history book, he found it to be completely different from the original. He contacted the publisher in Iran, who told him, “Our translation is better than your book.”

Every time a Harry Potter installment is released, there is a mad rush around the world to translate the book. One Iranian publisher divides each book into about twenty sections, giving each section to a different translator. That way, his version, which must resemble a patchwork quilt more than anything J. K. Rowling actually wrote, is the first on the Iranian market.

Knowing such horror stories, I feared the inevitable translation of my memoirs, Funny in Farsi, into Persian. Funny in Farsi is a collection of humorous vignettes, verbal snapshots of my immigrant family. In that book I was very careful not to cross the line into anything embarrassing or insulting. My goal was to have the subjects of my story laugh with me, not cringe and want to move to Switzerland under assumed names. But for all I knew, a translated version might make my family look like fools. Even though I had not used my maiden name in the original printing of the book, it took about twelve minutes for the average Iranian to figure out my last name, Jazayeri. Iranians are very good that way.

I decided to make my own preemptive strike and find a translator in Iran. This was not as easy as it sounds. Humor, like poetry, is culture-specific and does not always work in translation. What’s downright hilarious in one culture may draw blank stares in another.

When we came to America, my family could not figure out why a pie thrown in someone’s face was funny. The laugh tracks told us it was supposed to be hilarious, but we thought it was obnoxious. We also saw it as a terrible waste of food, a real no-no for anyone from any country in the world except for the United States.

We were also baffled by Carol Burnett’s Tarzan yell. Anyone who watched her show regularly knew that during the audience question-and-answer section, one person would inevitably ask her to do her Tarzan yell. We always hoped she would say, “Not tonight.” But instead, she would let out a loud and long yell that left the audience in stitches and us bewildered. “She shouldn’t do that,” my dad always said. We agreed and waited for all her other sketches, which we loved. There was just something goofy about her that made us laugh, especially when she was with Tim Conway. His humor had much to do with facial expressions and body language, which, thankfully, did not require translation. There is also something universally funny about the contrast between a short man and a tall man, which was played out with Harvey Korman. Given that most of the men in my family are closer in height to Tim Conway than to Harvey Korman, I assume there was among us a nervous understanding of the foibles of the short man.

We also adored Flip Wilson, especially when he became Geraldine. That character sketch, with “Geraldine’s” sassy attitude, had us rocking back and forth in laughter on our ugly brown striped sofa. One time, Flip Wilson sang “He put the lime in the coconut” in his high-pitched mock-sultry Geraldine voice, and my father laughed so hard that he cried. I didn’t think it was that funny, but watching my father laugh made us all laugh. The odd thing is that thirty-five years later, my father still remembers some of the words to that song, singing it as Kazem imitating Flip Wilson imitating Geraldine. It sounds nothing like the original, especially when he ekes out a “nee nee nee nee” instead of the forgotten lyrics.

I knew that Funny in Farsi would be a difficult book to translate because so much of its humor has to do with the American culture of the seventies. How does one translate “Shake ’n Bake” for cultures where slow cooking, not speed and ease, is the preferred method of food preparation, where a woman standing in her kitchen shaking a drumstick in a plastic bag and looking downright happy would cause concern? How does one convey to someone who has never seen The Price Is Right that the words “Come on down!” are always followed by a hysterical person shrieking and jumping up and down?

Through my uncle, who knew someone who knew someone, I was put in touch with a well-known humor translator living in Iran. The same week I started corresponding with him I received a very polite e-mail from Mohammad, another translator in Iran, asking for permission to translate my book. I thanked him but told him I already had someone. I deleted his e-mail.

Before we had a chance to formally agree on anything, my designated translator became ill, and it was obvious that I would have to find someone else. I was stuck, since I had deleted Mohammad’s e-mail. A month later, I received another e-mail from Mohammad telling me that he was still interested should I write another book. And this is how Mohammad Soleimani Nia, my translator, came into my life.

To test Mohammad’s skill, I asked him to translate one of my stories. I was quite pleased with the results and knew that, serendipitously, I had stumbled upon the right person.

Then we got started. Mohammad translated story by story and e-mailed each one to me. My father and I read each one and I e-mailed back our comments, most of which had to do with nuance. My father particularly objected when Mohammad translated “my father’s receding hairline” to “my father’s bald head.” I immediately sent Mohammad an e-mail quoting my father exactly: “I am not Yul Brynner!” A profusely apologetic e-mail followed.

Some of Mohammad’s mistakes revealed what life is like in the Middle East. In one story, I mentioned “eyes meeting across a room and va va va boom.” This was translated as “eyes meeting across a room and bombs going off.” I had to explain to Mohammad that, in America, “boom” is love.

In a story about Christmas, I wrote about “the bearded fellow” coming down people’s chimneys. Mohammad translated this literally. In Iran, however, a “bearded fellow” coming down the chimney is not a happy thought. The idea of going to bed so a bearded man, Khomeini perhaps, can come down the chimney would not cause visions of sugarplums dancing in anyone’s head. Instead, one would find frantic people packing their belongings, fast.

The title also had to change. Funny in Farsi is not funny in Farsi, or rather Persian, which is the correct name of the language in English. Saying, “I speak Farsi,” is like saying, “I speak français.” I was more than happy to let that title go since it has been the subject of many long e-mails from Iranians with far too much free time on their hands, accusing me of spreading misinformation about our vastly underappreciated culture. “The language is called Persian!” they tell me. I know. Please, should any reader, Iranian or otherwise, feel the urge to e-mail me with a complaint about the incorrect use of the word “Farsi” in the title of my previous book, please, instead, look up the words “humorous alliteration.”

In Iran, the title was changed to Atre Sombol, Atre Koj, meaning The Scent of Hyacinths, the Scent of Pine, which refers to the contrasting smells of the holidays. The Iranian New Year is associated with the scent of hyacinths, and Christmas, with the scent of pine—not to mention the bearded fellow coming down the chimney, although technically, that should not smell.

Then it was time for the censors. No movie or book can be made in Iran without approval from the government. Although there are no written guidelines stating exactly what is prohibited, common sense dictates that in an Islamic theocracy, nudity, profanity, insulting the religion or government, and perhaps anything having to do with Paris Hilton are all no-nos. Aside from those guidelines, one is at the mercy of the individual government employee assigned to each book. I hoped my stories would end up in the hands of one of those fun-loving, laugh-a-minute censors who would wave his teacup in the air, declaring, “Let’s change the name of that street again, this time to Firoozeh Dumas Avenue.”

I asked Mohammad how long the government would take to return my book. Surprisingly, there are no guidelines there, either. Perhaps some sort of Oil-for-Guidelines program could be negotiated.

Mohammad told me that the translation for James Joyce’s Ulysses has been at the censor’s office for seventeen years. I imagined the bearded censor sitting as at his desk, book open, chin back, mouth open, snoring loudly. That’s an example of a book that could use some nudity.

My stories were returned after six months. Three changes had to be made, two minor, one major.

The censor objected to my describing someone looking as if God had switched her nose with the beak of a toucan. One cannot blame God, I was told. In the Persian version, I reworded the sentence, using a passive voice, claiming that the woman’s nose looked as if it had been switched. One would think that in a book of humor some things would be obvious, but apparently not. Perhaps I had written the equivalent of Carol Burnett’s Tarzan yell.

From the Hardcover edition.

Reading Group Guide

1. Firoozeh says that humor differs from one culture to the next, but it also varies from person to person. Is there something that you find hilarious that others don’t?

 2. In Laughing Without an Accent, Firoozeh uses humor to tackle some very difficult topics–like the death of a loved one in “Seyyed Abdullah Jazayeri,” or Iranian censorship of her previous book in “Funny in Persian.” Do you believe humor is appropriate in all situations? Or are there times when it is not appropriate? 

3. Cultural norms are very different from country to country, such as all middle-class families having servants in Iran, unlike in the United States. After reading Laughing Without an Accent, which stood out for you? Are there any from other cultures that you have encountered that surprised you? 

4. In “Maid in Iran,” we learn that Firoozeh’s father changed the life of the maid’s son by making sure he had access to education. Do you believe that we each have the power to change the course of someone’s life? Why or why not? Who in this culture, besides Oprah, changes lives? 

5. In “The Jester and I,” a slightly misused word causes a great mix-up. Discuss a time when language barriers or mishaps have caused confusion for you. 

6. School is very different in Iran than it is in America. Many Americans believe that the educational system in the United States is failing many of its students. If you agree, what changes would you make? Why is it difficult to make changes? What are the obstacles? 

7. In “My Achilles’ Meal,” we see that Firoozeh’s parents felt she was too young to deal with the death of her grandmother. Each culture, and each family, deals with death in a particular way. How does your family deal with death? 

8. Firoozeh is guilty of being “the boy who cried wolf” in “Me and Mylanta.” Have you ever had a similar experience? Was it difficult to regain the trust of the person involved? 

9. Everybody’s family embarrasses them. Discuss family quirks that cause you to cringe. 

10. It may be true that both kids and adults rely too much on television to entertain them. Do you think not having a tele- vision would make someone more creative, or unlock some creativity that has been stifled by hours of TV? 

11. “In the Closet” proves that Firoozeh’s mother definitely believes that one man’s trash is another’s treasure. Do you believe this is true? 

12. Firoozeh writes about the challenges of finding appropriate clothing for her teenage daughter. How do you feel about the clothing choices available for tweens and teens, especially for girls? Do you think the type of clothing one wears affects one’s life? 

13. Have you ever falsely accused someone of wrongdoing, as in “Doggie Don’t”? Did the accusation come back to bite you, as in Firoozeh’s case? 

14. How would you feel if someone accused you of wrongdoing, or disliked you simply because of where you are from? How does the media’s portrayal of people from different countries shape how people feel about them? 

15. Firoozeh describes some foods she finds disgusting, whether maggot cheese, bovine urine, or the unsettling andouillette described in “Last Mango in Paris.” Discuss a time when you were presented with food that you found difficult to eat. How did you react? Was your host offended? Some people travel so that they can try new foods; others do all they can to avoid trying new foods. Which could be said of you? 

16. Selling a cross-shaped potato proved not to be the best get-rich-quick scheme for Firoozeh and her son. Have you ever tried a get-rich-quick scheme? 

17. If you were to give a graduation speech, what bit of wisdom would you want to impart to the students? 

18. Firoozeh made friends with an American once held hostage in Iran. What does this friendship say about the power of the ordinary person to act as a bridge builder? Do you think bridge building between nations is solely the job of politicians? 

19. “Most immigrants agree that at some point, we become permanent foreigners, belonging neither here nor there.” If you are an immigrant yourself, or the child of an immigrant, do you agree with that statement? If you are not, what could you do to help the immigrants in your community feel at home? 

20. What does the term “global citizen” mean to you? Do we have to lose something to become a global citizen, or do we simply gain? Firoozeh was born in Iran and raised in the United States, and is married to a Frenchman. She considers herself a global citizen. But how can others become global citizens? Does it involve living in another culture, or can we simply learn to think globally? 

21. Firoozeh says that she thought guilt was a pillar in parenting. Do you know someone who uses guilt effectively? Have you ever used guilt? Did it work? 

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Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book - what I thought was going to be a piece of fluff - looking for something to pass the time. Maybe, I thought, I can share it with my wife, earn some points by reading 'chick-lit'. I was going to give it my '35 pages' rule - to really pay attention for that long before making a decision to put it down and leave it behind. But I didn't. Stop reading, that is. I kept it with me, beside the bed, on the passenger seat of my car when I went to pick up my kids at school. Because Ms Dumas surprised me - this collection of memories of her childhood has substance...and heart, and that word that we tend to overuse, often incorrectly: quality. I find that her parents are my parents, except of course that mine are from New Jersey, not Iran. WIth each episode, her family's behaviors, foibles and events translate flawlessly into my own memories. How can that be, unless Ms Dumas is right: that there can be nothing foreign between us when we are laughing?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up because I loved Funny in Farsi. After a few pages I could not put it down! It is a laugh out loud book...very entertaining, better than Funny in Farsi!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I don't remember the last time I read a book that made me laugh out loud. As I read this book, I laughed often as I recognized myself and my family within the pages. In this collection of essays, Dumas describes her experiences growing up in Iran and her life in the U.S. Dumas' writing is honest, light, and laced with humor. Her stories are simple, yet powerful. This book is a fabulous reminder that our similarities far out weigh our differences- regardless of our cultural background. I can't wait to read 'Funny in Farsi.'
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved the stories in this book.  As a child of two different cultures it was so funny.  I could totally relate and see the stories and pictures of each event as it unfolded.  I had to stop writing down my favorite parts there were too many!  Each chapter was like reading a Bill Cosby skit, but with experiences that spoke to me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Starting out I wasn't sure what this book was going to be about. I wound up really enjoying this easy read and I even learned a thing or two!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Laughing without an accent is an easy read and mildly amusing. I really enjoyed Funny in Farsi and am slightly underwhelmed with this book.
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