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A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America

Written by Firoozeh DumasAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Firoozeh Dumas

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 224 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43099-1
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
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READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

This new Readers Circle edition includes a reading group guide and a conversation between Firoozeh Dumas and Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.

In 1972, when she was seven, Firoozeh Dumas and her family moved from Iran to Southern California, arriving with no firsthand knowledge of this country beyond her father’s glowing memories of his graduate school years here. More family soon followed, and the clan has been here ever since.

Funny in Farsi chronicles the American journey of Dumas’s wonderfully engaging family: her engineer father, a sweetly quixotic dreamer who first sought riches on Bowling for Dollars and in Las Vegas, and later lost his job during the Iranian revolution; her elegant mother, who never fully mastered English (nor cared to); her uncle, who combated the effects of American fast food with an army of miraculous American weight-loss gadgets; and Firoozeh herself, who as a girl changed her name to Julie, and who encountered a second wave of culture shock when she met and married a Frenchman, becoming part of a one-couple melting pot.

In a series of deftly drawn scenes, we watch the family grapple with American English (hot dogs and hush puppies?—a complete mystery), American traditions (Thanksgiving turkey?—an even greater mystery, since it tastes like nothing), and American culture (Firoozeh’s parents laugh uproariously at Bob Hope on television, although they don’t get the jokes even when she translates them into Farsi).

Above all, this is an unforgettable story of identity, discovery, and the power of family love. It is a book that will leave us all laughing—without an accent.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Leffingwell Elementary School


When I was seven, my parents, my fourteen-year-old brother, Farshid, and I moved from Abadan, Iran, to Whittier, California. Farid, the older of my two brothers, had been sent to Philadelphia the year before to attend high school. Like most Iranian youths, he had always dreamed of attending college abroad and, despite my mother's tears, had left us to live with my uncle and his American wife. I, too, had been sad at Farid's departure, but my sorrow soon faded-not coincidentally, with the receipt of a package from him. Suddenly, having my brother on a different continent seemed like a small price to pay for owning a Barbie complete with a carrying case and four outfits, including the rain gear and mini umbrella.

Our move to Whittier was temporary. My father, Kazem, an engineer with the National Iranian Oil Company, had been assigned to consult for an American firm for about two years. Having spent several years in Texas and California as a graduate student, my father often spoke about America with the eloquence and wonder normally reserved for a first love. To him, America was a place where anyone, no matter how humble his background, could become an important person. It was a kind and orderly nation full of clean bathrooms, a land where traffic laws were obeyed and where whales jumped through hoops. It was the Promised Land. For me, it was where I could buy more outfits for Barbie.

We arrived in Whittier shortly after the start of second grade; my father enrolled me in Leffingwell Elementary School. To facilitate my adjustment, the principal arranged for us to meet my new teacher, Mrs. Sandberg, a few days before I started school. Since my mother and I did not speak English, the meeting consisted of a dialogue between my father and Mrs. Sandberg. My father carefully explained that I had attended a prestigious kindergarten where all the children were taught English. Eager to impress Mrs. Sandberg, he asked me to demonstrate my knowledge of the English language. I stood up straight and proudly recited all that I knew: "White, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green."

The following Monday, my father drove my mother and me to school. He had decided that it would be a good idea for my mother to attend school with me for a few weeks. I could not understand why two people not speaking English would be better than one, but I was seven, and my opinion didn't matter much.

Until my first day at Leffingwell Elementary School, I had never thought of my mother as an embarrassment, but the sight of all the kids in the school staring at us before the bell rang was enough to make me pretend I didn't know her. The bell finally rang and Mrs. Sandberg came and escorted us to class. Fortunately, she had figured out that we were precisely the kind of people who would need help finding the right classroom.

My mother and I sat in the back while all the children took their assigned seats. Everyone continued to stare at us. Mrs. Sandberg wrote my name on the board: F-I-R-O-O-Z-E-H. Under my name, she wrote "I-R-A-N." She then pulled down a map of the world and said something to my mom. My mom looked at me and asked me what she had said. I told her that the teacher probably wanted her to find Iran on the map.

The problem was that my mother, like most women of her generation, had been only briefly educated. In her era, a girl's sole purpose in life was to find a husband. Having an education ranked far below more desirable attributes such as the ability to serve tea or prepare baklava. Before her marriage, my mother, Nazireh, had dreamed of becoming a midwife. Her father, a fairly progressive man, had even refused the two earlier suitors who had come for her so that his daughter could pursue her dream. My mother planned to obtain her diploma, then go to Tabriz to learn midwifery from a teacher whom my grandfather knew. Sadly, the teacher died unexpectedly, and my mother's dreams had to be buried as well.

Bachelor No. 3 was my father. Like the other suitors, he had never spoken to my mother, but one of his cousins knew someone who knew my mother's sister, so that was enough. More important, my mother fit my father's physical requirements for a wife. Like most Iranians, my father preferred a fair-skinned woman with straight, light-colored hair. Having spent a year in America as a Fulbright scholar, he had returned with a photo of a woman he found attractive and asked his older sister, Sedigeh, to find someone who resembled her. Sedigeh had asked around, and that is how at age seventeen my mother officially gave up her dreams, married my father, and had a child by the end of the year.

As the students continued staring at us, Mrs. Sandberg gestured to my mother to come up to the board. My mother reluctantly obeyed. I cringed. Mrs. Sandberg, using a combination of hand gestures, started pointing to the map and saying, "Iran? Iran? Iran?" Clearly, Mrs. Sandberg had planned on incorporating us into the day's lesson. I only wished she had told us that earlier so we could have stayed home.

After a few awkward attempts by my mother to find Iran on the map, Mrs. Sandberg finally understood that it wasn't my mother's lack of English that was causing a problem, but rather her lack of world geography. Smiling graciously, she pointed my mother back to her seat. Mrs. Sandberg then showed everyone, including my mother and me, where Iran was on the map. My mother nodded her head, acting as if she had known the location all along, but had preferred to keep it a secret. Now all the students stared at us, not just because I had come to school with my mother, not because we couldn't speak their language, but because we were stupid. I was especially mad at my mother, because she had negated the positive impression I had made previously by reciting the color wheel. I decided that starting the next day, she would have to stay home.

The bell finally rang and it was time for us to leave. Leffingwell Elementary was just a few blocks from our house and my father, grossly underestimating our ability to get lost, had assumed that my mother and I would be able to find our way home. She and I wandered aimlessly, perhaps hoping for a shooting star or a talking animal to help guide us back. None of the streets or houses looked familiar. As we stood pondering our predicament, an enthusiastic young girl came leaping out of her house and said something. Unable to understand her, we did what we had done all day: we smiled. The girl's mother joined us, then gestured for us to follow her inside. I assumed that the girl, who appeared to be the same age as I, was a student at Leffingwell Elementary; having us inside her house was probably akin to having the circus make a personal visit.

Her mother handed us a telephone, and my mother, who had, thankfully, memorized my father's work number, called him and explained our situation. My father then spoke to the American woman and gave her our address. This kind stranger agreed to take us back to our house.

Perhaps fearing that we might show up at their doorstep again, the woman and her daughter walked us all the way to our front porch and even helped my mother unlock the unfamiliar door. After making one last futile attempt at communication, they waved good-bye. Unable to thank them in words, we smiled even more broadly.

After spending an entire day in America, surrounded by Americans, I realized that my father's description of America had been correct. The bathrooms were clean and the people were very, very kind.

Hot Dogs and Wild Geese

Moving to America was both exciting and frightening, but we found great comfort in knowing that my father spoke English. Having spent years regaling us with stories about his graduate years in America, he had left us with the distinct impression that America was his second home. My mother and I planned to stick close to him, letting him guide us through the exotic American landscape that he knew so well. We counted on him not only to translate the language but also to translate the culture, to be a link to this most foreign of lands. He was to be our own private Rosetta stone.

Once we reached America, we wondered whether perhaps my father had confused his life in America with someone else's. Judging from the bewildered looks of store cashiers, gas station attendants, and waiters, my father spoke a version of English not yet shared with the rest of America. His attempts to find a "vater closet" in a department store would usually lead us to the drinking fountain or the home furnishings section. Asking my father to ask the waitress the definition of "sloppy Joe" or "Tater Tots" was no problem. His translations, however, were highly suspect. Waitresses would spend several minutes responding to my father's questions, and these responses, in turn, would be translated as "She doesn't know." Thanks to my father's translations, we stayed away from hot dogs, catfish, and hush puppies, and no amount of caviar in the sea would have convinced us to try mud pie.

We wondered how my father had managed to spend several years attending school in America, yet remain so utterly befuddled by Americans. We soon discovered that his college years had been spent mainly in the library, where he had managed to avoid contact with all Americans except his engineering professors. As long as the conversation was limited to vectors, surface tension, and fluid mechanics, my father was Fred Astaire with words. But one step outside the scintillating world of petroleum engineering and he had two left tongues.

My father's only other regular contact in college had been his roommate, a Pakistani who spent his days preparing curry. Since neither spoke English, but both liked curries, they got along splendidly. The person who had assigned them together had probably hoped they would either learn English or invent a common language for the occasion. Neither happened.


From the Hardcover edition.
Firoozeh Dumas|Author Q&A

About Firoozeh Dumas

Firoozeh Dumas - Funny in Farsi
Firoozeh Dumas was born in Abadan, Iran, and moved to California at the age of seven. After a two-year stay, she and her family moved back to Iran and resided in Ahvaz and Tehran. Two years later, Dumas returned to California, where she later attended the University of California at Berkeley. Funny in Farsi is her first book.

The book was a finalist for both the PEN/USA Award in 2004 and the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and has been adopted in junior high, high school and college curricula throughout the nation. It has been selected for common reading programs at several universities including: California State Bakersfield, California State University at Sacramento, Fairmont State University in West Virginia, Gallaudet University, Salisbury University, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Dumas is also the author of Laughing Without an Accent, a collection of autobiographical essays published in May 2008. She currently lives with her husband and their three children in Northern California.

Author Q&A

A Conversation Between Khaled
Hosseini and Firoozeh Dumas
I first met Khaled at a fundraiser for the Berkeley public libraries
in January 2004. Both of our books had been published fairly recently,
but I had not yet read The Kite Runner. I did, however, remember
his name. From the first time I had seen the name
“Khaled Hosseini” in print, I knew that he was from my part of
the world. I was rooting for him without ever having read a word.
Of course, once I read his book, I became an even bigger fan.
Soon after our first meeting, we decided to meet for dinner
with his wife, Roya, and my husband, François. It wasn’t easy selecting
a restaurant. Where do two Afghanis, one Iranian, and a
Frenchman go for dinner? I suggested sushi. We ended up going
to an Afghani restaurant, appropriately named Kabul. We have
been friends since.

Khaled Hosseini: Why did you use humor to write your memoir?

Firoozeh Dumas: I never intended to write a funny book. It just
came out that way. Before I started Funny in Farsi, I asked my
husband one day if I had ever told him the story about the first
time I went to summer camp. He said no. In fact, I had told no
one. So I told him the story and he was laughing so hard that he
was crying. I kept saying, “This is not a funny story. This is a sad
story.” And he kept shaking his head and saying, “This is the
funniest story I’ve ever heard.” And that’s when I realized that
sometimes, if you give something thirty years and if no one was
hurt, some of life’s less shining moments can be quite funny.

KH: You're very funny in person, Firoozeh. Fess up. Have you always
been funny?

FD: My father is the absolute funniest person I have ever
known. I never felt that I was funny, because compared to him
few people are. People have always said to me, “Oh, you’re so funny,” but it
never really registered. If people compliment you on your feet, it
doesn’t make you think you are going to grow up to be a foot
model. I consider myself an accidental humorist. When I was in labor
with my first child, I had days and days of contractions, followed
by hours of childbirth, followed by an emergency C-section. At
the end of what felt like an eternity, the doctor asked me if I
wanted to see the placenta. Truth was, I didn’t, but I felt like I
should want to, so I said, “No, thank you. I just saw one on public
television.” The doctors and nurses all started laughing, but I was
just trying to be polite. The last thing on my mind was being
funny.

KH: Is Funny in Farsi available in Iran? If so, do you know what
the reaction has been?

FD: Iran does not adhere to the international copyright laws,
which means that any book can be translated without permission.
The author has no control over the quality of the book. I
did not want a bad translation of Funny in Farsi, because in writing
my stories I was very careful about being funny without being
insulting, and I was afraid that a bad translation would just be
horribly embarrassing for my family. So I found my own translator
in Iran. Once he finished the translation, he sent the manuscript
to the censor’s office, since no book can be published in
Iran without government permission. Six months later, we got it
back. (We were lucky. The translator of James Joyce’s Ulysses
handed in the manuscript seventeen years ago and is still waiting!)
I had to remove a couple of small parts and the entire chapter
“The Ham Amendment.” I consider that chapter the soul of
the book, so having to remove it was painful. That’s life under an
Islamic theocracy. The book has not yet reached the bookstores,
so I have no idea how people will react. If Funny in Farsi is actually
funny in Farsi, it will bring some levity to its readers in Iran,
and I have the feeling they could use some levity right now.

KH: Since you are writing about real people, do you worry about
the reaction of the people you have mentioned in your book?
Not all the stories are flattering. How have you dealt with the inevitable
“how could you say that about me” questions?

FD: Everybody who is in the book gave his blessing, except for
my husband’s family. We have since reunited with them, but we
have never, ever discussed the book. That’s one subject I will not
be bringing up. Definitely not enough Mylanta in the world for
that conversation. I have had a lot of complaints from relatives who are not in
the book. They assumed it was because they are not important to
me. And in true Middle Eastern fashion, they did not complain
to me but to my parents. The truth is that if I wrote about all my
relatives, it would be a fourteen-volume set.

KH: What has been the reaction of the Iranian community in
America to Funny in Farsi?

FD: They love it. They keep thanking me for showing another
side of the Iranian people to the world. Most Westerners think
Middle Easterners just discuss politics and religion all day. We’re
actually quite fun.

KH: As a mother of two, when do you find the time to write?
Where do you write? Do you have any writing rituals?

FD: I write in spurts. When I’m writing, I get up at 4:00 a.m.
without using an alarm clock. Once a story is in my head, I’m
possessed, and the only thing I can do is write like mad. This
means the house gets very messy and dinner is something frozen.
I do not read or go to the movies when I am writing, because I
can’t concentrate on anything else. I also keep writing in my
head when I’m not actually writing, which means that I become
a terrible listener. It’s really a challenge trying to be a writer and
a decent mom and wife. I’m just grateful to have an understanding
family. Up until a few months ago, we lived in an 850-square-foot
house, with one table that served all our needs. It was also my
writing spot. I would just put my laptop there and type away
until my kids got up.
I once saw a book about writers and their special writing spots.
There were photos of spectacular cottages on lakes and woodpaneled
rooms filled with travel mementos. I just always tried to
make sure that the table was clean before I put down my laptop. I
found out the hard way that glitter left over from my daughter’s
art projects really sticks to computers.

KH: I loved the story about the “F word.” Do you have a favorite
story?

FD: Every time I finished a story, I swore it was my favorite.
Many of the stories still make me laugh out loud even though I
have read them a hundred times. I still can’t read “Girls Just
Wanna Have Funds” without crying at the end.

KH: How has your life changed since the publication of Funny
in Farsi
?
FD: Because of Funny in Farsi, I have traveled throughout the
United States and met thousands of people. I have spoken in
churches, Jewish temples, Islamic centers, and schools. I have
always believed that there are far more good people in this
world than bad ones and that most people want to be reminded
of our shared humanity rather than our differences. Since the
publication of Funny in Farsi, my theory has been thoroughly
proven. And Khaled, don’t get jealous, but I get the best emails. Because
many schools throughout the United States are now using
Funny in Farsi in the classroom, I get a lot of emails from twelveto
eighteen-year-olds, and they say things like, “You are the best
writer ever!” I write them back and I say, “You are so astute!”
Even though Funny in Farsi is my story, it’s essentially a universal
tale of being an outsider. If you’ve gone through adolescence,
you’ve been there. I get e-mails from teachers all the time telling
me that even their students who normally do not read loved
reading Funny in Farsi. That makes my day every time. Adult
readers tend to invite me to their home. I get a lot of “If you are
ever in the Saint Louis area, our spare bedroom is yours!” It’s
very, very sweet.

KH: What are you working on now?

FD: I just wrote a piece for the New York Times humor section,
and I’ve been editing a book for UC Berkeley’s International
House about the effects of September 11 on ten individuals.
Truth is, I am itching to write my next book but I am currently
traveling full time. I have a bunch of stories in my head, so I am
just waiting for a lull in my schedule so I can put them down on
paper.

KH: You remembered so many details from your childhood. Did
you keep a diary growing up, or could you simply tap into your
own memories for this book, as I did in my own?

FD: I was always that quiet kid in a room full of adults that
everyone forgot about. I have always listened and observed, so
when I started writing, details just flooded back to me. And
every time I finished a story, another popped up in its place. It
was like using a vending machine: the candy falls down and is
immediately replaced by another.

KH: On the surface, at least, there is very little about politics in

FD: 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. When I speak at schools, I often ask
the students what they think of when they hear the words “Middle
East,” and they all say “war” or “terrorism.” That’s like someone
saying that when they hear “America,” they think of the Ku
Klux Klan. So I always make sure that when I’m visiting schools,
I sing “Happy Birthday” in Persian and I remind them that our
commonalities far outweigh our differences. They get it.

KH: “Are you Afghan or American or a hyphenated person?” I
ask you this question because I get it all the time. So, do you
think of yourself as Iranian or American?

FD: There are parts of me that are Iranian and parts of me that
are American. I can’t cook for just four people; I’m always thinking,
“What if someone drops by?” And when I married my husband,
I told him that when my parents get old they will move in
with us. That’s my Iranian side. If I receive good service somewhere, I always write the management and tell them, and if I receive bad service, I let them know
too. That’s my American side. And I vote in every election. That’s
my American side combined with the fear of facing my father.

KH: Are you—and if so how—trying to instill your Iranian culture
in your kids? How about French culture?

FD: Of course, it’s very important for me to have children who
are familiar with their heritage. But more important, I wanted
my children to be citizens of the world. That’s easy for us since
we live in the Bay Area and have friends from all over. We have
always discussed other countries and religions, and my children
have no fear of people who are different than they are. They
think it’s normal to have a dinner party with half a dozen different
accents. They also grew up thinking that dim sum, pad thai,
and chicken tandoori are as ordinary to other kids as pizza or
chicken strips.
I always spoke Persian to my children when they were little.
Unfortunately, I do not have family near me, so once my children
started school they insisted on speaking English. I didn’t really
fight because there are enough battles between parents and children
and you have to choose them carefully. I hope someday
they can spend some time in Iran so they can once again learn
Persian.
My children love Persian food. Who doesn’t? And they are
crazy about my extended family. When they were little, family
gatherings scared them. All that cheek pinching and enthusiastic
kissing was too much for them, but they have come to see beyond
that and appreciate how much my family loves them.
As far as their French side, my husband has instilled a love of
all things French, ranging from food, even escargots (!), to
movies to songs. We have traveled several times to France and
plan to go there more often now that we have reconciled with
his family. My husband’s lucky because he can go back his hometown
and not much has changed. Abadan no longer exists as
I know it, because it was heavily bombed during the Iran-Iraq
war.

KH: Any funny book-tour stories?

FD: Every author has an event that goes terribly wrong. I was invited
as a keynote speaker to an event where I was told there
would be five thousand junior high kids. This was a non profit organization
with no budget, so I bought my own plane ticket,
thinking that the high volume book sales would more than make
up for my expense. Once I got there, I found out that they had allotted
five minutes for my speech and that instead of five thousand
kids, five hundred showed up. I had arranged with a
bookseller to bring six hundred books. This bookseller had also
sent four employees.
When I went to speak, we realized the microphone did not
work. They just said, “Speak loudly.” It was an outdoor event.
I spent the day sitting behind a stack of six hundred books.
People kept walking toward us enthusiastically; then we realized
we were seated in front of the booth that sold funnel cakes. We
sold two copies of Funny in Farsi. I treated the four book sellers to
dinner and apologized profusely. And I helped them put the 598
copies of Funny in Farsi back in the boxes.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“What’s charming beyond the humor of this memoir is that it remains affectionate even in the weakest, most tenuous moments for the culture. It’s the brilliance of true sophistication at work.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Often hilarious, always interesting . . . Like the movie 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding,'this book describes with humor the intersection and overlapping of two cultures.”
The Providence Journal

“Heartfelt and hilarious—in any language.”
Glamour

“Remarkable . . . told with wry humor shorn of sentimentality . . . In the end, what sticks with the reader is an exuberant immigrant embrace of America.”
San Francisco Chronicle

"A humorous and introspective chronicle of a life filled with love--of family, country, and heritage."
-Jimmy Carter

Awards

WINNER School Library Journal Adult Books for Young Adults
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide



NOTE TO TEACHERS

Teachers: If you'd like a printable version of this guide, download the PDF attachment at the bottom of this page.

Funny in Farsi offers readers an intimate look at the immigrant experience through the lens of an exceptional–and exceptionally funny–Iranian family. Author Firoozeh Dumas teases out the everyday uniqueness of life in the United States as she recounts her family’s experiences as transplants from oil-rich Abadan, Iran, to the epicenter of the American pursuit of the perfect tan: Newport Beach, California. With her wry take on everything from television commercials to Disneyland to mixed marriage, Dumas uncovers what makes America so unique and so utterly puzzling to those unacquainted with its larger-than-life customs. Her poignant descriptions of what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land will resonate with anyone who has ever experienced social alienation at any stage of life. In her unflinching examination into the essence of the Iranian immigrant experience, Dumas exposes America as it has never before been seen.

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Funny in Farsi grew out of Firoozeh Dumas’ experience of moving to Southern California in 1972 at the age of seven. She originally intended her collection of essays as a gift to her children–to show them that our commonalities far outweigh our differences–and she wrote the book almost entirely in the hours before they woke for school.
Arriving with no firsthand knowledge of this country beyond her father’s glowing memories of his graduate school years here, Firoozeh learned to adapt to her new surroundings with a special eye to the more absurd elements of American culture. Funny in Farsi chronicles the American journey of Dumas’ wonderfully engaging family: her engineer father, a sweetly quixotic dreamer; her elegant mother, who never fully mastered English; her uncle, who combated the effects of American fast food with an array of miraculous American weight-loss gadgets; and Firoozeh herself, who as a girl changed her name to Julie, and encountered a second wave of culture shock when she met and married a Frenchman.

ABOUT THIS AUTHOR

Firoozeh Dumas was born in Abadan, Iran, and moved to California at the age of seven. After a two-year stay, she and her family moved back to Iran and resided in Ahvaz and Tehran. Two years later, Dumas returned to California, where she later attended the University of California at Berkeley. Funny in Farsi is her first book.
The book was a finalist for both the PEN/USA Award in 2004 and the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and has been adopted in junior high, high school and college curricula throughout the nation. It has been selected for common reading programs at several universities including: California State Bakersfield, California State University at Sacramento, Fairmont State University in West Virginia, Gallaudet University, Salisbury University, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Dumas is also the author of Laughing Without an Accent, a collection of autobiographical essays published in May 2008. She currently lives with her husband and their three children in Northern California.

TEACHING IDEAS

Funny in Farsi is an excellent addition to Language Arts and Literature courses, especially those on the genre of memoir. The book is appropriate for all reading levels, and its humor and relatability will make it appealing to a wide variety of readers, from voracious to reluctant to ESL/ELL. The book lends itself to frank discussions about ethnic assumptions, cultural differences, and racial biases, and the author’s tremendously entertaining and unflinching look at her own family’s misadventures offers fertile territory for class discussion and analysis.
Given its expansive examination of everyday life and culture in Iran and America, Funny in Farsi would also be an ideal text for students of social studies and world cultures. Its depiction of life in the 1970s, and its focus on the political crises that developed between Iran and the United States at that time, would make it a useful text for courses in American and Middle Eastern history, and for classes that study the immigrant experience.

DISCUSSION AND WRITING

1) How does Firoozeh feel on her first day of elementary school when her mother cannot locate Iran on a map? What kinds of assumptions might her fellow classmates make about Firoozeh’s inability to speak English, her unusual Persian name, and her mother accompanying her to school? To what extent do you think language barriers are to blame for cultural misunderstandings?
2) Firoozeh’s parents don’t speak English fluently, and their efforts to do so often lead to embarrassment, especially for their children. Why doesn’t Firoozeh do more to encourage her parents to learn English? To what extent can you relate to the experience of being embarrassed by your family?
3) How would you characterize the role of television in Firoozeh’s family? Why does television’s visual medium connect her relatives to American products and attitudes in ways that their language cannot?
4) How does Firoozeh’s experience at Disneyland, where she is encouraged to communicate with another missing child in her native Persian, expose Western biases about people who don’t speak English fluently? How do you feel about “racial profiling,” or making assumptions about someone’s ethnicity based on their appearance and accent? On what past occasions have you experienced or carried out racial profiling, and how do you feel about it now, in light of Firoozeh’s encounter?

5) How did the experiences of Firoozeh and her family in America compare to how their friends who arrived after the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis were treated? Why are immigrants whose native countries are in conflict with their adopted country sometimes subjected to mistreatment and–in some cases–discrimination or abuse? What does this all-too-common phenomenon suggest about the intersection of patriotism and xenophobia?

6) Firoozeh’s husband, François, experiences life as an American immigrant much differently than does Firoozeh. What do you think accounts for Americans’ biases in their attitudes toward immigrants from different countries? To what extent are these biases grounded in stereotypes about the immigrants’ native countries?
7) How does Firoozeh’s experience of sleepaway camp highlight the social isolation she experiences as someone who is perceived by others as “different”? How does her decision not to bathe the entire two weeks contribute to her loneliness? To what extent can you relate to her feeling of being “invisible” at camp?
8) What does Firoozeh’s decision to take an American name suggest about her feelings toward her adopted country? What might her name change to Julie suggest about her identity as an immigrant? How does her dual identity (and her ability to speak English without any discernable accent) enable her to see how Americans really feel about Iran?
9) Firoozeh’s father, Kazem, is grateful for his opportunity to vote as a naturalized American citizen. Why might being able to vote make someone feel especially connected with one’s community or country? Based on the information about Iran you have learned from Funny in Farsi, how do the political rights of Iranian citizens compare to the political rights of American citizens?
10) How is the Thanksgiving meal at Firoozeh’s house a metaphor for her American assimilation? To what extent might eating another culture’s traditional cuisine enable one to better understand its people?
11) How did the promise of education in America change Kazem’s life forever? To what extent does education seem to hold the same opportunities for both immigrants from foreign countries and native citizens?
12)
How does Firoozeh’s interaction with her many relatives compare to your involvement with your extended family? To what extent is the notion of one’s family defined differently by each culture? How might one measure the importance of the family in American society?
13)
How does Firoozeh’s experience of violence during the Shah’s visit with President Carter in 1977 affect her? How do you think Firoozeh is able to reconcile this experience of violence and racial hatred with her appreciation for all that America offers her family? 14) How does Firoozeh’s engagement to François, a French Catholic, affect her relationship with her parents? To what extent does her mother’s reaction to the news reflect her acceptance of the changing realities of contemporary life in America? Are mixed marriages (ethnic, religious, racial, etc.) accepted or considered controversial in your community, and why?
15) How does Firoozeh’s use of humor to describe her experiences as an Iranian immigrant in America enable you to appreciate the more confusing or mystifying aspects of American culture? How would the experience of reading this book differ for you if it were told from a more serious perspective? Of the many humorous moments detailed by Firoozeh Dumas, which was most memorable for you, and why?

******************

Funny in Farsi contains 27 chapters, each addressing various themes for discussion. To begin a general discussion of the book, I suggest asking, “What chapter stands out for you and why?”

For those who prefer a chapter-by-chapter guide, I have prepared the following questions, followed by a set of general questions.

Leffingwell Elementary School
1. How do you react to someone who does not speak English? Do you make assumptions about their intelligence?
2. When Firoozeh’s mother could not find Iran on the map, who do think was more embarrassed, Firoozeh or her mother?
3. Do you think geography matters? Why?

Hot Dogs and Wild Geese
1. In some cultures, it is considered very rude not to try new foods. Do you try new foods? Is there a polite way to refuse?
2. What foods in this culture might seem strange to a foreigner?

In the Gutter
1. What role does television play in shaping our hopes and dreams?
2. Have you ever quit something because you thought you were not good enough?

Save Me, Mickey
1. Have you ever been lost?
2. Have you ever been mistaken for someone from another country?
3. Have you ever assumed you know where someone is from based on his or her appearance?

Swoosh, Swoosh
1. Why did Nematollah feel compelled to try every American food item?
2. What do you think of the culture of weight loss in this country?
3. Why did Nematollah believe the ads on TV?

With a Little Help From My Friends
1. Do you have a world map in your house?
2. By studying geography from first grade, Iranian students learn that the
world matters. Do you think the rest of the world matters?
3. Do you believe that kindness is never forgotten? If yes, give an example from your life.
4. How would this book be different if Firoozeh had only known America after the Iranian Revolution?

Bernice
1. When you see negative events in the news about another country, what assumptions, if any, do you make about the people of that country?
2. Imagine coming to America and only watching the news. What would you think of American society? Would you feel safe?

A Dozen Key Chains
1. Share your worst camp experience.
2. Do you think Firoozeh would have made friends if she had bathed?

You Can Call Me Al
1. Find Abadan on a map. Find the Caspian Sea. Trace the drive through Tehran, the capital of Iran. If you drive that distance from your hometown, where do you end up?
2. How do you define “vacation”?

Of Mosquitoes and Men
1. Do you like to travel to exotic locations or do you prefer the familiar?
2. Why do you think some people seek adventure when they travel while others seek only comfort?

The “F” Word
1. How do you react to someone with a difficult name?
2. Do you know an immigrant who changed his name to an American name?
3. On Ellis Island, many immigrants were given new anglicized versions of their last names. Discuss the pros and cons.

Waterloo
1. Has anxiety ever prevented you from learning something?
2. Do you think anyone at any age can learn anything or is there a time limit on certain skills?

America, Land of the Free
1. Do you automatically try all free samples?
2. We all know the expression “nothing is free.” Is that true?

The Ham Amendment
1. Firoozeh’s father believes that there are good and bad people in every religion. Do you agree?
2. How is religion used to divide people? How does it unite?

Treasure Island
1. Education changed Kazem’s life. Do you think education can transform everyone?
2. Meeting Albert Einstein was the most exciting event in Kazem’s life. If you could meet anyone, whom would you pick?

It’s All Relatives
1. Family plays a huge role in the Iranian culture. What role does it play in the American culture?
2. In America, the role of family has changed over the years. Discuss the pros and cons.

Me and Bob Hope
1. What is it like to live in America and not celebrate Christmas?
2. Some non-Christians celebrate Christmas so their children do not feel left out. How do you feel about this?
3. Even though Christmas is a religious holiday, many believe that it has become a shopping extravaganza. What do you think?

I Ran and I Ran and I Ran
1. How did this chapter make you feel?
2. Were you surprised by the events?
3. Firoozeh wrote this story because nobody was seriously hurt. Do you think she would have written this if anyone had been seriously injured?

I-Raynians Need Not Apply
1. Even though America is the land of immigrants, immigrants do not necessarily feel welcome. During the 19th century, Irish immigrants were faced with signs in shop windows stating “N.I.N.A.” meaning No Irish Need Apply. How do we treat immigrants now?
2. Who was the immigrant in your family?
3. Some people feel we should limit immigration. Do you agree?

Girls Just Wanna Have Funds
1. Firoozeh held a string of odd jobs to earn money. Have you ever had an odd job?
2. Firoozeh’s Aunt Sedigeh did not have the educational opportunity that Firoozeh had. Do you think that educational opportunities for the next generation are improving in America?
3. Do you think that anyone who wants an education in America can obtain one?

Joyeuse Noelle
1. Firoozeh’s summer in Paris turned out very differently than what she had imagined. Have your expectations of an event ever clashed with reality?
2. Noelle was very excited that Firoozeh was from California. What stereotypes might foreigners have of Californians? What has shaped their ideas?

The Wedding
1. Have you ever attended a wedding of people from different religions?
If so, what was it like?
2. Some people believe that people should only marry within their own religion. Do you agree?
3. Firoozeh says that her mother became a “pioneer” by accepting Francois. Did you expect Firoozeh’s mother to react that way?
4. Every culture has marriage traditions. What are yours?

I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet
1. Firoozeh described her china as having “bad karma.” What do you think she meant by that?
2. Do you agree with what Firoozeh did with the china?

A Nose By Any Other Name
1. Firoozeh says Iranians are obsessed by noses. What is the obsession in America?
2. How do different cultures define beauty?
3. The librarian had learned to accept herself as she was. How different would we be if we accepted ourselves as we are? What would happen to the beauty or diet industry?

Judges Paid Off
1. What do you think of beauty pageants?
2. Firoozeh said she thought the beauty pageant should be replaced with a spelling bee. Do you think it would be any easier to lose in a spelling bee?

If I Were a Rich Man
1. Why do you think Firoozeh’s father refuses to apologize for his mistakes?
2. What is the American dream? Has it changed over the years? Is it
achievable?
3. How we define wealth in America?

Afterword: Kazem and Nazireh Jazayeri
1. Firoozeh still keeps in touch with her second grade teacher, Mrs.
Sandberg. Why do think this is?
2. Firoozeh says that everybody has a story to tell and everybody’s story counts. Do you agree?

General questions:
1. The theme of Funny in Farsi is “shared humanity.” What does that
mean to you?
2. How would our communities, both locally and globally, be different if we saw our commonalities before our differences?
3. Most Americans’ perception of the Middle East is limited to what is shown on the evening news. Since only bad news is news, how does
this effect the perception of Middle Eastern immigrants in this county?
4. Immigrants often do not try to be a part of American society,
preferring instead to spend time with their own compatriots. What can be done to encourage assimilation?
5. Should immigrants speak their native language at home?
6. Firoozeh’s book is funny without being mean. Discuss the humor found in television.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES

1)Ask your students to address some of the more confusing elements of American culture that Firoozeh Dumas pokes fun at in Funny in Farsi, and have them prepare an essay in which they describe the experience of viewing their country through the eyes of one unaccustomed to its idiosyncrasies. Ask your students to analyze how effective Funny in Farsi is at using humor to bridge the cultural divide between author and reader.
2)Ask your students pretend to they have just arrived in America, knowing nothing about Americans or American culture, and have them watch the evening news for 5 consecutive nights. Ask them to then write about their impressions of Americans and share these thoughts with the class. This exercise is particularly useful in helping students understand how Iranians, or other groups, often feel about having almost entirely negative news shown about them on a consistent basis; it also raises issues for discussion of media and its impact on how people formulate opinions and biases.
3)
Ask your students to reimagine one of the typically humorous chapters in Funny in Farsi from the perspective of an Iranian immigrant who arrives in America soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. How did American sentiment toward citizens of Middle Eastern descent change in the wake of terrorism on American soil? You may also ask your students to describe their own stereotypes about Middle Easterners or Iranians, and how their attitudes changed in the course of reading Funny in Farsi.
4)
Remind your students that Firoozeh Dumas reveals the experience of what it feels like to be an Iranian immigrant through a series of brief and humorous episodes from her everyday life. Have your students then brainstorm the events or incidents they would include in memoirs of their lives. Ask them to consider how many of the events they would include are rites of passage, like Dumas’s wedding or her first day of school in America, or whether they are more simply snapshots from their lives. Have your students prepare mini-memoirs in which they connect a series of these memories together in a narrative. Ask them to share their memoirs with their classmates, and to identify what the events they’ve chosen to include (and exclude) reveal about them.

VOCABULARY

Firoozeh Dumas defines most Persian words in context in the course of Funny in Farsi, but the following terms may be useful to readers.
• ameh, — father’s sister
• amoo, — father’s brother
• aqd, — Persian wedding ceremony
• dye-yee, — mother’s brother
• khaleh, — mother’s sister
• pessar ameh, — son of father’s sister
• pessar amoo, — son of father’s brother
• shohar ameh, — husband of father’s sister
• shohar khaleh, — husband of mother’s sister
• sofreh, — a hand-sewn cloth on which family arranges food and objects that carry special meaning in the traditional wedding ceremony

BEYOND THE BOOK

1) Funny in Farsi refers to a number of political controversies that arose between Iran and the United States in the 1970s, including the hostage crisis, the Iranian Revolution, and the rise of anti-Shah sentiment in America. Ask your students to research more about the history of American-Iranian relations, with a particular focus on the years covered in Funny in Farsi. Encourage your students to examine the American-Iranian relationship today, and to consider how the status of this international affiliation has changed in the past thirty years. How would Firoozeh and her family have experienced America as Iranian immigrants if they had arrived today?
2) In the past few years, a number of memoirs have been published that examine the Iranian immigrant experience in America, many of them penned by women. Ask your students to select a memoir from the list of titles below and to prepare essays that compare and contrast both works. In their analyses of both works, students may want to consider such themes as cultural assimilation, social alienation, political disenfranchisement, and political empowerment.
3) Firoozeh Dumas is also the author of the nonfiction collection, Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad. Ask your students to read Dumas’ other book and prepare an essay in which they analyze how Dumas’ opinion of the United States has changed over the years, as her acquaintance with this country has grown. Students may want to explore how the immigrant experience evolves from childhood to adulthood.

OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST

Also Available by Firoozeh Dumas
 
 
LAUGHING WITHOUT AN ACCENT
Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad
Funny in Farsi author Firoozeh Dumas returns with Laughing Without an Accent to tell more stories about her hilarious, warm, and loving family, and the experience of being not just an American, but a citizen of the world. Whether describing her Iranian family’s wonder at her French husband’s Christmas traditions, or comparing questionable delicacies in international cuisines, or what it’s like to live in the International House college dorm when you’re an American after all, Firoozeh Dumas’ wit, warmth, and insight illuminate the universality of the human condition, and show how our differences can become our bonds.
Villard Books | HC | 978-0-345-49956-1 | 240 pp | $22.00/$25.00 Can.

OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST
Iran Awakening: One Woman's Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country, Shirin
Abadi and Azadeh Moaveni
All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer
Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, At Home and
Abroad, Firoozeh Dumas
Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, Roya
Hakakian
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Marjane Satrapi

ABOUT THIS GUIDE

This guide was prepared by author Firoozeh Dumas and writer Julie Cooper. 

Julie Cooper is a graduate of Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Washington.  She has taught beginning and advanced fiction writing at the University of Washington, and works as a freelance writer of educational materials and reading group guides for several major publishers. Download a PDF of the Teacher's Guide

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