Contributed by Firoozeh Dumas, author of Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America. 2023 marks the 20-year anniversary of the groundbreaking memoir, which has remained a classroom favorite for two decades.
When I was in high school, a major news outlet took a poll to find out the most unpopular country in the world. Bingo! My native country, Iran, was number one.
In case you’re wondering how Iran achieved this dubious honor, allow me to present a very short and incomplete history lesson. Iran had a revolution in 1979, then 52 Americans were taken hostage for 444 days. Add to this crowds chanting “Death to America!” on a regular basis while burning effigies of American presidents, and there you have it. Number one.
I was 13 years old when the Iranian revolution happened. Prior to that event, my parents and I rarely met an American who had heard of Iran and pretty much no one could find it on a map. (The map issue is still the case. Geography teachers, we need you!) After the American hostages were taken, there were bumper stickers and t-shirts everywhere that said, “Iranians, Go Home!” and “Wanted: Iranians for Target Practice.” One of the top songs in 1980 was a jaunty tune called “Bomb Iran.” Imagine waking up to that on your Panasonic clock radio. (The singers also mispronounced Iran, saying “I-ran,” so it bothered me on so many levels. Is it too much to ask that if you are going to insult an entire country, at least learn to say the name correctly?) The revolution also ushered non-stop media coverage of one type of Iranian: angry, bearded men spewing mean things. It’s as if there were no other people in the entire country. This was the backdrop of my adolescence.
I am happy to announce that, as I write this, Iranian women are receiving media coverage for their unbelievable heroism and courage. It only took 44 years.
When I became a mother, I wanted my children to know my stories. I had never seen myself in a book, movie, or film. I knew that I had to write the book that did not yet exist. Funny in Farsi was published in 2003. It took almost an entire year to find an agent, because no one believed that humor and the Middle East could go together. I am the first Iranian-American to write a humorous memoir. It seems so obvious today, but trust me, 20-something years ago, it was unheard of.
One agent told me to write about oppression since Americans only saw Middle Eastern women as oppressed people. “Oppression is in,” she said.
Funny in Farsi became an instant bestseller due to people like you, educators. It is used in junior high, high schools, colleges, and universities around the world. I have been told that it is the only book that all students read willingly, even reluctant readers. Everyone sees themselves in the book, which most readers find surprising. Teachers use it because it is a natural springboard for all sorts of discussions—world politics, immigration, the American dream. It’s also a short, funny book, which makes it very popular.
For the past 20 years, readers of all ages have told me three things: they can’t believe that a book written by an Iranian woman made them laugh out loud, they can’t believe that my family is just like theirs, and they now want to write their own stories. This makes me so happy!
I have always known that everyone has a story to tell and everyone’s story counts. The more first-person stories we read, the more we see ourselves in others. If we read enough stories, eventually, we learn that there is no “other.”
Funny in Farsi has been my magic carpet for the past 20 years. I have traveled the world, met thousands of educators, and helped create curriculum that I hope makes this world a tiny bit kinder. Funny in Farsi was also excerpted on an AP English exam, giving my nephew the singular experience of having to answer a question about his own grandfather. And my personal nerd dream came true in 2022, when Funny in Farsi and I were a clue on Jeopardy! (It was an $800 question and, yes, it was answered correctly!)
I like to think that if a poll were taken today about the most unpopular country in the world, no one would respond because it’s a ridiculous question. No country should be judged solely by its leaders or how others perceive it. The only way for us to learn this is to go beyond the evening news and to learn each other’s stories. Let’s hope that someday soon, we’ll all see that our commonalities far outweigh our difference, because they do.