I’ve had a life-long fascination with the Middle East. Therefore, it’s no surprise this blog has featured a number of books that deal with the region. Out of all of countries in the Middle East, Israel and Iran seem to interest me the most. Could it be because both nations are sort of outliers when compared to their neighbors? Unlike almost every other country in the Middle East and North Africa, neither Iran or Israel are majority Arab or Sunni Muslim. Neither is Arabic the dominant language of either nation. With Israel hugging the Mediterranean coastline and Iran nestled between the Persian Gulf and the “Stans” of Central Asia, even geographically the two nations could be seen as outsiders relative to the rest of the Middle East. However, on the other hand few would deny that both nations couldn’t be more different from each other. One, the world’s only Jewish-majority country with a European-inspired parliamentary democracy. The other, a Shia Muslim theocracy with limited representational government. One founded during the aftermath of WWII, while the other has been around for close to three thousand years. And there are many who feel that both nations fear the other is out to destroy them.
So, with that in mind, whenever I’m rummaging through the shelves at my local public library it’s hard for me to pass up a book about Israel or Iran should I ever come across one. This happened not too long ago when I stumbled upon a copy of Firoozeh Dumas’ memoir Funny in Farsi A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America. Published in 2004, it’s Dumas’ tale of how her and her family came to live in the United States after leaving Ibadan, Iran. While living in America she comes to first understand, then slowly embrace American culture. She excels academically, goes to college at UC Berkeley and along the way falls in love and gets married. And thanks to the Iranian Revolution and the Hostage Crises has to deal with angry Americans.
Don’t ask me why, but to me the most memorable parts of her memoir all center around food. Confused at the sight of her Muslim father enjoying a ham dinner and asking him how we could engage in such seemingly unIslamic behavior, he responded with his own particular brand of ijtihad, explaining to her that the purpose behind the Islamic prohibition against eating port was protect the early Muslims from diseases like trichinosis. Nowadays, thanks to improved sanitation, food safety and public hygiene pork is safe to eat and thus there’s no need to adhere to such a ban. Later, her father would fall in love with American fast-food, resulting in an unexpected weight gain which in turn led to a series of brief flirtations with fad diets and weight loss measures. Another memorable food-related scene was the first dinner her fiance had with Dumas and her family. Dinning at an upscale Persian restaurant, her fiance put down an almost staggering amount of food, including a sizable dessert. Back home after dinner, while moaning in discomfort, she asked him why he ate so much. He told Dumas he wanted to impress his future in-laws by relishing their native dishes. Lastly, the most heart-warming culinary anecdote is the elderly Jewish neighbor who regularly dropped by the now married couple’s apartment in the Bay Area to give them a homemade bundt cake. Because Dumas came to the widow’s aid during of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, she would periodically drop by with one of her homemade creations. With tears of gratitude she would exclaim “You married an angel!” to Dumas’ young husband every time she visited.
Besides all the cross cultural adventures and coming of age stuff you would expect from a memoir like this, I saw Funny in Farsi as a charming testimony to the good things America possesses. Clean bathrooms in public areas, widespread material affluence, religious freedom, decent public schools, friendly and hospitable people (even strangers) can be found in abundance in her memoir. This makes it nice companion read to Ibn Warraq’s 2011 book Why the West is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy. It’s also a nice book to read as part of Books in the City’s Immigrant Stories Reading Challenge. Can’t go wrong with that.