Firoozeh Dumas’s Funny in Farsi

Regardless of how poorly people pronounce your name, I bet you didn’t have to be called “Fritzy, Fritzy Dumb Ass” by a receptionist at the doctor’s office. So you can imagine the kinds of stories that Firoozeh Dumas relates in Funny in Farsi, her memoir of growing up Iranian in Southern California. “As I stood up for this most linguistically original version of my name,” she writes, “I could feel all eyes upon me. The room was momentarily silent as all these sick people sat united in a moment of gratitude for their own names.”

Funny in Farsi is a collection of essays, each centering around an anecdote or a milestone in Dumas’ life. Many of these are hilariously rendered tales of how her family struggles to fit in and grab a piece of the American dream for themselves. There’s her mother, Nazireh, who holds a Koran at the top of the doorframe for her family to walk under on their way to Sin City. There’s Uncle Nematollah, who visits for a few months, binges on American junk food, then decides to lose weight by wearing something resembling a moon suit and jogging around the block. “Unable to understand English, he had apparently forgotten the international meaning of stares as well,” Dumas says. There’s Aunt Parvine, who thinks it’s perfectly alright to teach her niece how to swim by throwing her in the deep end of the pool.

The real hero of this book, however, is Dumas’ father, Kazem, a Fulbright scholar and oil engineer who immigrated with his family shortly before the Islamic Revolution in Iran. One comes away from this book with nothing but love for a man who, despite his very recent acquaintance with the game, decided to enter Bowling for Dollars, a man who thinks having samples at Price Club qualifies as “eating out,” a man who feels it’s too boring to make hotel reservations in advance.

Dumas is occasionally quite perceptive about what it’s like to come from a country no one had heard of. “Perhaps it’s like driving a Yugo and realizing that the eighteen-wheeler can’t see you,” she writes. She’s equally perceptive about what it’s like to come from a country people have heard of only in the context of the revolution and the hostage crisis.

In Berkeley, people were either thrilled or horrified to meet an Iranian. Reactions included, “So what do you think of the fascist American CIA pigs who supported the Shah’s dictatorship only to use him as a puppet in their endless thirst for power in the Middle East and other areas like Nicaragua.” Sometimes, mentioning that I was from Iran completely ended the conversation. I never knew why but I assume some feared that I might really be yet another female terrorist masquerading as a history of art major at UC-Berkeley.

Some of the stories seem a little out of place, such as “Judges Paid Off,” about Dumas’ trip to the Bahamas, which seems entirely off-topic. And, at times, Dumas’ attempts at international rapprochement come across as syrupy. For instance, when neighbors are friendly to her, she says, “If someone had been able to encapsulate the kindness of these second-graders in pill form, the pills would undoubtedly put many war correspondents out of business.” Or “I believe peace in the Middle East could be achieved if the various leaders held their discussions in front of a giant bowl of Persian ice cream, each leader with his own silver spoon.”

But, despite these missteps, the book is enormously engaging, and I found myself laughing out loud several times. A recommended read, even (or maybe especially) for those who’ve never had to be called Dumb-Ass.