Funny in Farsi: a Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America by Firoozeh Dumas

Jun 6, 2012

I'm rarely not in the mood for a memoir. I like reading about the experiences of real people in their own words. Maybe that's why I'm such an avid journal writer myself (I like being able to read my own memoir whenever I want) and also why you should hide any personal writings you don't want me to read (one of my brothers used to hate it when I read his letters, but really, if they were out in plain sight, what did he expect? The temptation was just too great).

Firoozeh Dumas said that when people found out she was writing a memoir, they would ask, "What in your life are you writing about?" Firoozeh said, "It is true that most people write a memoir after an achievement. I, however, skipped the achievement part and moved straight to the memoir. This is because I truly believe that everyone has a story and everyone's story counts." I agree completely. That's not to say I would read anyone's personal anecdotes, but I do believe there is much wisdom and perspective as we relate through our similarities and differences.

Firoozeh Dumas moved to the United States from Iran when she was 7 years old. (And with a name like Firoozeh, you know she is 100% authentic.) The book is written as a series of stand alone essays, each chapter telling a different story. Her father loved America, but there were still many moments where the two cultures clashed in sometimes sad but mostly funny ways.

It is meant to be funny, and, don't get me wrong, it is funny, but some of the humor felt a little forced or contrived. For example, this sentence: "If worrying were an Olympic sport, my parents' faces would have graced the Wheaties box a long time ago." For some reason,that just felt like she was trying to think of something creative and funny, and that was what she came up with. It just misses the mark. Contrast that with this line: "Should Time-Life publish a Do-It-Yourself Guide to Medical Procedures, my mother and I will be leaving the country." Of course I'm taking both of these quotes out of context (this last one was in reference to the fact that her father was always trying to be a handyman, using his 14-volume Time-Life set as a reference), but the point is that for me, some of the writing really was funny while other attempts were only worthy of a courtesy laugh.

Criticism aside, the stories are memorable, heartwarming, and, yes, funny. For example, there's one about her money-making attempts as a young teenager; there's another about her father taking advantage of every free sample in America; there's another about her miserable two weeks at summer camp. Through these stories, Firoozeh reveals a universal truth about life:

"Sometimes if you give something thirty years and if no one was hurt, some of life's less shining moments can be quite funny."

We never like to go through horrible vacations or irate neighbors or expensive car repairs, but they sure make for great stories later, and this is true regardless of whether you're Iranian or American.

However, a few of the chapters do touch on the serious. There's the extremely intelligent aunt who, because of cultural restraints, never gets a formal education...a bright mind wasted because she was a woman. There's also Firoozeh's father, who worships all things American but still loses his job because of social prejudices and distrust against Iranians. And there's Firoozeh herself who marries a Frenchman against the wishes of his family and experiences the heartache that comes with hatred and tension among family members. For me, these stories stand as a reminder that some hurts don't go away even when we look at them through rose colored glasses, and we must therefore by careful what we say and how we treat others.

When Firoozeh was asked why politics didn't figure more prominently in the book, she said, "One of the biggest problems I have faced as an Iranian in America is that no one knows much about Iran except what is on the evening news. Politics has grossly overshadowed humanity in the Middle East and I wanted to write a book that would shine the light on humanity." This was one of the most refreshing aspects of the book. We have attached such inaccurate stereotypes to Iranians (and other Middle Easterners), and now I have a different view of a group of people I knew very little about.

If I was writing my own memoir, I think I would have a hard time writing about the people I loved best. I would want to present them in the most positive light, but if I cut out all of their weaknesses or their annoying habits (because we all have those!), then I would have eliminated the very things that would help endear them to other people.

And it is this, setting aside everything else I just talked about, that made me love this book. Firoozeh's father was one of the most prominent characters in almost all the stories, and I loved him...not because he was the kindest, most perfect father, but because he ate ham even though it was a forbidden food, and because he yelled at Firoozeh when he was trying to teach her how to swim, and because he never would admit to making a mistake. As hard as it must have been to paint her father in a less-than-perfect light, it was those very flaws that made the story real and believable, and oh, so funny.

I checked out a copy of this book from my local library.


  1. Amy: Thank you for this review. I will definitely look into this book. It sounds interesting. If you have not already done so, check out some of the books I've reviewed on my blog, which deal with similar topics (some memoirs, some novels). I would be interested in knowing your thoughts on any patterns or themes you notice.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Can you tell me your blog address? I know I've looked at it before, but it's been awhile...

  2. I took a class in Arab American Literature last fall, and I will be passing the link to this post along to my instructor. Sounds like a book she might like to use with that class in the future.

    1. I hope it will be something she might be interested in. What other books did you read for that class?

    2. In the Country of Men - Hisham Matar
      Tasting the Sky - Ibtisam Barakat
      A Map of Home - Randa Jarrar
      Through and Through - Joseph Geha
      Never in a Hurry - Naomi Shihab Nye


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