Funny again, in English | August 13, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- August 13, 2008

Funny again, in English

by Don Kazak

Firoozeh Dumas, an immigrant from Iran, is a Palo Alto author who wrote the popular memoir, "Funny in Farsi" several years ago.

She's done it again.

While her earlier memoir concentrated on the culture shock of coming to America, "Laughing Without an Accent" includes much more detail about growing up in Iran, the culture shock of moving from a small town to Tehran, and the equally disturbing shocks of living first in Southern California and then being a college student in Berkeley.

Dumas relates a touching story of how, when she was a 6-year-old girl, she couldn't help but listen to conversations of others on the telephone party line her family shared with other families in their Tehran apartment building.

Some of the other tenants became angry at her listening to their conversations while others grew used to it.

"I never took it personally," Dumas wrote. "I had no TV, games, after-school activities or playmates. It was either the phone or playing with matches. Luckily for the other tenants, I was afraid of fire."

While living with her family in Tehran, they had a unique evening pastime.

They lived across the street from a police station and would gather on their balcony every evening to watch and listen to what was happening.

It was better than having a TV.

"... every evening was a reality show," she wrote. "This being Iran and not Norway, the people who came to the police department were expressive and loud. People fought and swore and insulted each other's mothers. Really angry people used their hands so much that spoken language seemed like an unnecessary accessory."

A tradition in Iran at the time was that members of a wedding party would honk their horns while driving through the city, which the police sometimes took exception to.

So Dumas and her family were startled when members of one wedding party were arrested for excessive honking.

"Seeing a bride and groom all dressed up and swearing was way more exciting than anything I remembered from Abadan (the small city where she first lived)," Dumas wrote. "I couldn't understand why they had been arrested since all wedding parties honk, but my father explained that they were probably rich and the police officer probably just wanted a bribe."

Her parents play a key role in her second memoir. In her first book, she wrote about how her father, an engineer, should never be left alone in her home with tools while she was gone.

She writes about her parents in a touching, loving way, accentuating the cultural shock of being in America. Indeed, at one point, her mother relates how her daughter may be taking notes.

Her time in Southern California was difficult and disquieting, since her reference points were a small town in Iran and then Tehran.

But it was when Dumas became a student at the University of California, Berkeley and met her future husband ("the Frenchman") that she truly had an Alice-in-Wonderland experience.

"Many immigrants agree that at some point, we become permanent foreigners, belonging neither here nor there," Dumas wrote. "Many tomes have been written trying to describe this feeling of floating between worlds but never fully landing ... The one and only time I felt like a complete foreigner was in college."

The sharpened politics and counter-cultural flavor weren't the disquieting parts for her.

"Almost all evening activities revolved around binge drinking," she wrote. "My not drinking had nothing to do with being Muslim or Iranian." It was a family trait.

Dumas tried, almost desperately, to find a group of students she could fit in with, who would share her sense of fun.

"For my first attempt at finding my niche, I joined a church social group, thinking they didn't drink and might be fun," she wrote. "They probably would have been fun if there had been more than six of them and if I had not mentioned that I was Muslim."

But living off campus kept Dumas apart from the milieu of other students until she moved into the International House and met a guy from France, so it is a story that ends well and can be recalled with Dumas' understated humor.

As a student, Dumas once vacationed in France. She did the usual tour of the museums, including a four-hour bus ride to Mont St. Michael, the site of a 10th century chapel.

But Dumas was embarrassed on the long bus ride because of the young, affectionate couple sitting in front of her.

"A few seconds later, she started nibbling on his earlobe; he kissed her neck," Dumas wrote. "We were barely out of the parking lot. She licked his cheek; he chewed on her ear cartilage. They were either in love or very hungry."

The story is noteworthy because she later met the woman in question and remembered the bus ride.

Her powers of observation, along with her humor, makes reading "Laughing Without an Accent" and the earlier "Funny in Farsi" so enjoyable.

I won't give it away, but Dumas has two teen daughters and it's hilarious to read her observations about the clothes that are popular with teen American girls when she goes shopping with them.

She tells about going on a cruise with her parents to celebrate her father's birthday. It was a large family gathering and they, Iranians, sang "Happy Birthday" in English because "a large group of Middle Easterners these days scares people enough.

"Add to that any form of exuberance with clapping, cheering and guttural sounds and the next thing you know, we are trying to convince the nice men from Homeland Security that we are not trying to take over the buffet lines."

Dumas has an eye and an ear for seeing humor in the most mundane situations.

But the best part of "Laughing Without An Accent" is the last chapter, entitled "444 Days," which is without any humor.

The chapter title refers to the length of time that more than 50 Americans were held hostage in the American embassy in Tehran at the time of the Iranian religious revolution. Dumas remembered seeing one of the two American women hostages, watching her speak in television interviews when Dumas was already in America, and being impressed with the woman's poise in a difficult situation.

Years later, a relative of Dumas told her that he worked with someone whose aunt was the American hostage she remembered watching on TV.

So, of course, they met. The woman, Kathryn Koob, bore no malice to her Iranian captors and showed Dumas parts of Wisconsin and Iowa when Dumas came to visit her.

Dumas was captivated by the hilly charm of Wisconsin and flat, agricultural sameness of Iowa, and the stolid Midwest Americans she met, whose sensibilities are not that different from hers.

And Dumas reflected on how news coverage skews our view of the world.

"I realized something that year," she wrote. "Most people in America watch the evening news to learn about the world, but what they're really seeing is the worst of every country. Only bad news is news. The worse it is, the more coverage it gets. There will never be headline news that says, 'Decent Middle Eastern Family Found! Tune in at eleven for full coverage!'"

Well, no.

But anyone who reads "Laughing Without An Accent" will know and appreciate that.

Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at dkazak@paweekly.com.

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