Funny in Farsi tells of Firoozeh Dumas’ move as a seven-year-old girl from Iran to the US in 1971, when her father was sent there by the National Iranian Oil Company for two years. They returned again for good.
Her collection of stories about her family is not just funny but also an interesting commentary about adjusting to life in the US, during an especially hard for Iranians – the hostage crisis and the revolution, during which her father loses his job and finds it difficult to find another.
“Overnight, Iranians in America became, to say the least, very unpopular. For some reason, many Americans began to think that all Iranians, despite outward appearances to the contrary, could at any given moment get angry and take prisoners. People always asked us what we thought of the hostage situation. ‘It’s awful,’ we always said. This reply was generally met with surprise. We were asked our opinion on the hostages so often that I started reminding people that they weren’t in our garage. My mother solved the problem by claiming to be from Russia or “Torekey”. Sometimes I’d just say, ‘Have you noticed how all the recent serial killers have been Americans? I won’t hold it against you.'”
Funny in Farsi was a quick, entertaining read. Dumas could probably have probed a little deeper into the politics at the heart of it all, but keeps mostly to the clash of cultures – not just American and Iranian, but also with French culture (she eventually marries a Frenchman):
“Being French in America is like having your hand stamped with one of those passes that allows you to get into everything. All Francois has to do is mention his obviously French name and people find him intriguing. It is assumed that he’s a sensitive, well-read intellectual, someone who, when not reciting Baudelaire, spends his days creating Impressionist paintings.”
As someone who moved somewhat recently to the US (although Singapore is probably far more similar to the US than to Iran), I could understand some of what her family was going through, like the celebration of culture-specific holidays – in her case Nowruz, a celebration of spring:
“No longer did we feel the excitement building toward the big day. No longer did we see people cleaning their drapes, buying new clothes, or sweeping their yards spotless. No longer did we prepare for an onslaught of visitors. Gone were the smells of pastries coming from every kitchen, gone were the purple hyacinths that decorated every house, gone were the strangers wishing us ‘Nowruz Mubarak’, ‘Happy New Year’. Gone was the excitement in the air.”
Sadly it’s the same for us and the Lunar New Year celebrations. Back in Singapore, we would indeed be buying new clothes, spring cleaning, baking up a storm, buying oranges by the boxes, decorating the house, in preparation for the friends and relatives coming by to visit. I tried to do a little here myself, spring cleaning for sure (during the 15-days of the New Year, traditionally you’re not supposed to clean house as it will ‘sweep’ the luck away), baking a little and putting up some decorations. Wee reader virtually offered his grandparents oranges via Skype and I made some cookies. But it’s so different being here without family around. I remember the huge celebrations growing up. My paternal grandparents would have a gigantic feast for the reunion dinner (Lunar New Year eve), and a lion dance troupe would be hired to come by on the first day. We would all be dressed up in brand new clothes, a little bag stuffed full of ang bao (red packets of money), another bag full of oranges to present to elders. And then we would nosh on all the different snacks and drinks at the various relatives’ houses we’d visit. What fun!
Of course Lunar New Year isn’t a vacation period here in the US (in Singapore, one would usually get the first two days off work), so it’s a typical working day. It’s also the husband’s busy season which means the likelihood of visiting Singapore at this time is very low!
This is my twelfth read for the Global Women of Colour Challenge (challenge page).
Firoozeh Dumas was born in Abadan, Iran and moved to Whittier, California at the age of seven. After a two-year stay, she and her family moved back to Iran and lived in Ahvaz and Tehran. Two years later, they moved back to Whittier, then to Newport Beach. Firoozeh then attended UC Berkeley where she met and married a Frenchman.
Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America
Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad
Late for Tea at the Deer Palace traces the story of four generations of a prominent Iraqi family from the early 1900s till recent years, from their beginnings in Iraq to exile in London and Lebanon, and finally a return to their homeland. If Firoozeh Dumas’ book was fueled by the funny, then Tamara Chalabi’s was triggered by her anger.
Chalabi, daughter of the controversial politician Ahmad Chalabai, wanted to convey her feelings about her homeland
“I was angry at what I perceived initially as a country hurled back to the Middle Ages through misrule, neglect and sanctions, and a beaten people who had lost their voice long ago. I was also angry about what I saw as the expropriation of those people’s silent voices, and of Iraq as a land by the US civil administration and the international press to serve their own agendas, political and otherwise. They became the designated spokespeople for an Iraq they barely knew and didn’t care about, in the shadow of a greater preoccupation with the role of America in the region. They reduced Iraq to a desert of tanks, screaming women and barefoot children. The country’s ancient history and cultural output over millennia meant nothing to them. I tried to understand the silence of the Iraqis themselves – perhaps it was the consequence of enduring fear, or a habit developed as the result of decades of oppression; perhaps it was their unfamiliarity with the latest means of communication owning to those long years of sanctions, I didn’t know. One of Iraq’s burdens has always been the way it is presented to the outside world as patchy, Manichaean, extreme. It is a nation that is portrayed either through its politics, most notoriously through Saddam and his regime, or through its ancient and glorious history, but never through its people.”
While Chalabi was born in Beirut, Iraq has been in her mind since she was a child, with memories recounted by her relatives, especially her uncle Hassan. She first visited Iraq in 2003, ten days after Baghdad’s fall.
Late for Tea at the Deer Palace is part history, part memoir, discussing the fall of the Ottoman empire as witnessed by Chalabi’s great-grandfather, the ties with the British that her grandfather had, and the 1920s and 1930s social life and household customs as demonstrated by her grandmother Bibi, such a gem of a character, headstrong and prone to dramatic outbursts, and whom Chalabi tends to focus on.
This book is Iraqi history seen through the eyes of the Chalabi family, who have pretty much seen it all – royalty, politicking, intrigue, military coups, exile. But throughout all of that, their love for Iraq is unshakable.
This is my thirteenth read for the Global Women of Colour Challenge (challenge page).
Tamara Chalabi has a PhD in history from Harvard University. Her first book, The Shi’is of Jabal’Amil and the New Lebanon: 1918–1943, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2006. She has written for the Sunday Times, New Republic, Wall Street Journal, Slate and Prospect on war, culture and identity. She lives in London and Beirut.