Funny in Farsi:
By Firoozeh Dumas, Random House.
In this bright and humorous thank-you note to America, Iranian émigrée Firoozeh Dumas demonstrates mastery of a traditional Persian art form, flattery. Highly developed by Iranian court poets, this skillful expression of praise, humility and gratitude is known as madh. Loosely translated as ‘panegyric,’ these flowery words came in handy when an enraged and egomaniacal sultan was about to do something rash. Dumas renders her madh of America in memoir form instead of in verse, but her techniques of appeasement are akin to those used by court poets whose wit sometimes decided between prosperity or ruin for the nation.
To make the sultan America feel warm inside, Dumas begins her tale in the upscale town of Whittier, California, where her family settled in the seventies. Tension builds when soon after their arrival she and her mother get lost in this opulent suburban setting. The tension is relieved when a resident generously invites them in to use the telephone and later drives them home. Dumas tells us, “After spending an entire day in America, surrounded by Americans I realized….the people were very, very kind.” What follows are peanut butter cookies, summer camp, Thanksgiving, Bob Hope, Disneyland, Halloween, and The Brady Bunch.
In her carefully crafted effort not to offend, Dumas recreates the cotton candy America that existed only in Hollywood in the fifties. She resurrects the uncomplicated America of The Andy Griffith Show and Father Knows Best. One can almost hear the knowing laugh track when Dumas replaces the word “hell” with the euphemism “a very bad place.” Eyeballs would roll if such material came from a contemporary American writer, but Dumas insightfully recognizes that, channeled through fresh immigrant eyes, this hackneyed treatment of America still has plenty of play.
Another technique of madh is paying homage to mundane attributes taken for granted by the sultan, revealing their deeper significance. Dumas reminds us of American affluence during a romp through Price Club. Her father and uncle ate enough free samples to feel like they had a full lunch. “In Iran people who taste something before they buy it are called shoplifters,” says Dumas. “Here a person can taste something, not buy it and still have the clerk wish him a nice day." In a wealthy consumer society where advertising budgets are huge, the giving away of food to un-needy strangers is indeed a remarkable consequence, something to boast about.
Pressing her ego boosting charm on the reader, Dumas stuffs America with opportunities. She mentions that her father was a Fulbright scholar. He even got to meet Albert Einstein and was consulted on the subject of Persian cats by the great genius. Her own education at UC Berkeley was financed through scholarships. In a very funny chapter, reminiscent of fifties era sitcoms, her father botches the opportunity to win a fortune in Bowling for Dollars. He comes home with only a pittance, the wiser for his ordeal.
Dumas is an Iranian-American Norman Rockwell. Death and tragedy are not on her palette. Everyone is wonderful--the exception being her intolerant French mother-in-law, which I assume was allowed in the book to please the freedom fries crowd.
Though politics is unwelcome in polite company, when it comes to Iran even Dumas can’t sidestep it. However, she keeps pouring on the syrup until the reader can’t tell a stack of pancakes from a cow pie. Here’s how she describes the abusive British oil policy towards Iran: “In a perfect world, the kindergarten teacher would have stood up before any documents were signed and said, ‘time out for Britain. We’ll renegotiate after a nap.’” When it comes time to confront the CIA engineered demolition of Iran’s home-made democracy, she is too genteel to use the word “America,” opting for “foreign powers” instead. The reader will have to guess for himself who this ‘foreign powers’ was that so bereaved Iranians that they are still shouting “Death to America” in the streets.
In return for her courteous flattery, Dumas invites America to see the positive side of Iranians. For instance, her memoir is soaked in paternal love, obliterating the notion that Iranian fathers do not value their daughters. As a moving example, her father’s inept swimming lessons are hilarious, particularly in the light of his irritation at the girl’s abysmal progress.
Funny in Farsi delivers exactly what the title promises, but there’s also an unfunny side to this memoir. The author’s eagerness to please and be accepted causes her to slip on a crucial point. Too often she takes the opportunity to distance herself from her ruder, more politically outspoken compatriots. This creates the impression that Iranians come in two varieties, gentle America lovers and violent America haters. Her partitioning strategy relieves the stigma on most Iranian-Americans--a great service to the community--but frankly they are not the ones who need her help. It is the other group--those living in Iran—who are threatened with a U.S. invasion. It is this other group whose essential infrastructure and national heritage are menaced by this enraged and egomaniacal sultan, America. Those Iranians are now perhaps in even greater danger because Funny in Farsi is telling Americans their country can do no wrong.