This American Life

Don’t believe in the American dream? Tell that to Iranian-American author Firoozeh Dumas’ father, a man for whom America is a “kind and orderly nation full of clean bathrooms, a land where traffic laws were obeyed and where whales jumped through hoops.” A man for whom life in this country is a privilege, not a right, and if you don’t vote, you don’t deserve to stay. More than the highs and lows of living in both her mother and adopted countries, Dumas’ memoir, Funny in Farsi, is an enjoyably and believably simplistic reminder of how good — despite bigger and wealthier men’s attempts to muck it up — we have it here.

In Abadan, Iran, even the middle class have servants. But Dumas’ engineer father, Kazem, fueled by memories as a Fulbright scholar in Texas, wanted better and uproots the kids to “Vee-tee-er” (Whittier) in 1972. Not yet tainted by the impending turmoil in the Middle East, their neighbors are ignorant but kind. Between her father’s British English and mother Nazireh’s language lessons from Let’s Make a Deal and The Price Is Right, the family makes the expected funny fumbles in their first days, like finding out that elbow grease can’t be bought at the hardware store.

The relatives are plenty and their “visits” from abroad last months, not days. But the book is really an ode to Dumas’ father, taking us through his devotion to free food samples at Price Club, trying to win the jackpot on the TV show Bowling for Dollars, and meeting Albert Einstein at Princeton in the ’50s. But it’s not all rose-water syrup and roasted pistachios. Try having your name never-endingly butchered (“Fritzy Dumb-ass” ouch), avoiding the obligatory stupid questions about camels and tents, and being culture-clustered as every other group of people under the sun. “If not blonde, then Mexican,” she writes of her family’s brief stay in white-and-tanned Newport Beach. And when the Iranian Revolution and American hostage crisis in Tehran unfolded a few years later, so did racism and unemployment.

Dumas eventually makes it to Berkeley and marries a Frenchman, culminating in the biggest event of her large family’s life, the slaughtering of the lamb. Well, the wedding leading up to the slaughtering of the lamb. “Without my relatives,” says Dumas, “I am but a thread; together we form a colorful and elaborate Persian carpet.”

FUNNY IN FARSI: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America By FIROOZEH DUMAS | Villard | 187 pages | $22 hardcover

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