Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Laughing Without an Accent

Firouzeh Dumas' second book may not throw you off the bed with laughter as the Funny in Farsi does, but it certainly warms your heart as much as any humorous work of art might.

Like her previous book, if there is one unified theme I can point at, it is our humanity which makes us like each other. Reading her memoir, I thought I had already heard each story. They were all familiar and all humane, whether her father's stubbornness, her mother's naiveté, the childishness of most the adults in her own childhood mind; whether she criticizes some Iranian traditions or American modernism, whether she praises the “less” and “limit” or criticizes the abundance and waste, all this makes a point: our humanity.

As someone who has a keen eye and an acute taste for pattern, I could not detect any particular pattern in the collection of her memoir. However, the randomness of the stories is not devoid of merit; it fits into the nature of humor which is itself random and unexpected.

By the first two chapters of the book, I came to expect a more mellow kind of humor, until I moved to the second story, My Achilles’ Meal, when I laughed so hard that tears ran from my eyes. Oddly enough, it was not the language and the text which sounded funny but the imagery implied by the story. It was the visualization of this toothless ancient women in her nineties (? ) who kept making French fries for this little girl was even more hilarious than them winding up in the water closets of department store while looking for bathroom in a story from Funny in Farsi.

The chapter on Iranian style education was my treasure. Besides her praises for Fedowsi and Hafez and Saadi, her acknowledgment of Dr. Mohammad Ali Mojtahedi, the principal of Alborz High School, was past due. Alborz College (as it was called) was indeed a phenomenal institution. It was not a token institution. (It was a trend to have a token of every thing in pre-revolutionary Iran.) Rather, it was a model institution which, thanks to Dr. Mojtahedi, set an standard and kept up to it. He was one of the several dedicated individuals who were the founding fathers (and mothers) of our educational system; and God bless them all, they did a fantastic job.

Maid in Iran was a delightful narrative about the maids in her childhood years in Abadan, who came with their own stories and left. Not only is it a tribute to the all those loving people who were part of the Iranian household, but it was a little corner of Iranian life which really deserves to be exposed. No, it was not the heartbreaking tales of cruelty, abuse, and exploitation of servants, and did not have the slightest resemblance to the Hassan’s fate in The Kite Runner. It was a human relationship in which the less advantaged benefited from the generosity and compassion of the privileged.

Last year, a friend of mine visited me from Iran. Talking about her children who did not have such a passion for education, she said now a days it is the children of servants and laundresses who attend universities and became doctors and engineers. Exaggerated as it may sound, this is good news for Firouzeh and all of us that the children of gardeners do not need to be gardeners themselves (though I should confess choosing between being a gardener and a stock broker, a financier, a dentist, and even a lawyer, with due respect to all, I would not hesitate to choose being a gardener.)

Though the cultural clashes are the main source of humor in her stories, still the greater emphasis is on the similarities which unite us all, and how differences could complement each other. The 444 Days is a delightful example of how deep down we share humanitarian values when we surpass the structural forms and focus on the essence, and when we transcend appearances for the sake of higher goals.

Humanist that she is, she is indeed very critical of American fad culture: excess and proliferation of almost everything, workaholism, the money culture, competition, a misplaced work ethics, as well as some the nuances of Iranian culture: excessive pleasantries, biases, rigid discipline, and “not letting go.” However, she still finds a way to look at the maladies with compassion. Her parents are the permanent target of her wit (whose parents aren't?) and when she picks on them, either it is over their inability as to change the way of the past and let go of the habits, their ideas, or even their clothing and other paraphernalia, or their inability to sense the world beyond their personal world. But after a good laughter she realizes it is time for peace and understanding and she goes on like this:

I’m convinced that she [her mother] holds on to things for the same reason we hold on tight during roller coaster rides; we think we have to. Perhaps with every shipment to the house, she is letting go a little bit. And perhaps she sees that even when she lets go and unexpected things happen, like a revolution that displaces her forever, she still does not fall off.

As much as I admire her peace-loving soul and her ability to wield human beings together through her finding common ground and above all humor, or finding virtue in failure (Mr. Potato), I still wish for a little of Tom and Jerry in her to manifest itself in her writings as well. A while ago I was listening to her interview one of the hostages taken in Iran who, while in the custody of the so-called students, used to tutor one of them who was preparing himself for some board exam. Firouzeh asked her, “Did you really help him?” “Yes indeed.” She answered. “You should have told him ‘the name of the organ which is big and red and pumps the blood into your system is the kidney.’” They both laughed. It was indeed another “I’m sorry” with wit.

I always take delight in reading a book which leaves me thirsting for more, for a “what if she had talked about this or that.” I wished she had talked about her speech in Of Mice and Mandalas even if it would have been irrelevant. I think that means I loved her piece Pomp It Up. That was indeed a great graduation speech. I’m sure those who listened to it had benefited from it tremendously, particularly what she said about brushing the teeth and flossing. I mean it.

And finally she did great on the subject which is forever in the heart of every emigrant “to change or not to change, that is the question.” She says yes to the “celebration of life” when someone dies at ninety leaving a wonderful legacy behind, instead of traditional Iranian mourning, and places a question mark on the wedding anniversary of those who have gone through an arranged marriage more that half a century ago, as if to say, Our families decided we should marry even though I had never met you and frankly, it’s not working out so well, Particularly when there is not even a Hallmark card saying: “Roses are red, violets are blue, on the day we got married, I couldn’t stand you.”

Laughing Without Accent is another wonderful book to have next to your bed for those nights which the rush of the problems keeps you awake.

And on the last note, as the author of the book requested and the reviewer recommends, please buy your copy of this book (If you buy it at all) from your local independent book store and please buy several copies and give it as a gift to those you love and want them to be happy.


Boston Review said...

We recently published an interview with leading Iranian dissident journalist Akbar Ganji about his life, his political activism, and the future of his homeland. Based on the content of your blog, we thought you might be interested in checking out the conversation. You can view it at http://bostonreview.net/BRwebonly/ganji.php.
Have a great day,
Boston Review

Anonymous said...

We noticed your site’s review of Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran by Roya Hakakian and wonder if you might be interested in our upcoming memoir In the House of My Bibi: Growing Up in Revolutionary Iran by Nastaran Kherad. Kherad grew up in revolutionary Iran and was a political prisoner at age 18. The memoir tells the story of her time as a prisoner while recalling the years with her grandmother (Bibi) that brought her to that point.

Included below is a press release regarding In the House of My Bibi: Growing Up in Revolutionary Iran by Nastaran Kherad. Galleys will be ready soon, would you be interested in receiving a copy for review?

In the House of My Bibi
Growing Up in Revolutionary Iran

Author Nastaran Kherad was born in 1964 in Abadan, Iran, near the Persian Gulf. At age two, after her father’s sudden death, she moved to Shiraz to live with her maternal grandmother, Bibi. In her powerful memoir of a girlhood spent during the upheaval of the Iranian Revolution, she recounts vivid memories of time with her Bibi and of her imprisonment at age eighteen on trumped-up political charges.
Nastaran grew up in Shiraz, a beautiful garden city, under the protection of Bibi, her maternal grandmother. Bibi mesmerized her granddaughter with countless stories, traditional prayers, and simple yet profound wisdom gleaned from a harsh life. At first it was just Nastaran and Bibi in the house, but when Nastaran turned six, her mother and brothers came to live with them, turning Bibi’s home into a microcosm of the clash of cultures that was Iran in the 1970s. Nastaran was torn between the traditional upbringing of a girl her age, and the call of a modern world. She established a special bond with Mohammed, her older brother, who introduced her to the world of ideas, literature, and art. It is the love and nurturing of Bibi and Mohammed that guide Nastaran through her tangled and tumultuous adolescence.
The memoir, In the House of My Bibi: Growing Up in Revolutionary Iran (Academy Chicago Publishers, 978-0-89733-567-6, 300pp, Paperback Original, $18.95), also chronicles the time during Nastaran’s brutal incarceration in the women’s cell block of Adelabad Prison in the city of Shiraz, in southern Iran; she was tortured and made to live in harsh, over-crowded conditions. Many of the people imprisoned at Adelabad were innocent victims of tyranny, and this included Nastaran’s brother, Mohammed, twenty-four years old, who was on death row for his political views and his belief in a free and just society. He was just one of the tens of thousands of young university students and schoolchildren that the Ayatollah Khomeini’s secret police executed in a sweeping attempt to destroy all signs of modernization and to sever all ties with the West. Nastaran’s narrative is a compelling glimpse into this nightmare world.

Contact: Jordan Miller or Jacob Schroeder
363 West Erie Street, 7th Floor East, Chicago, IL, 60610 Phone: 312-751-7300, Fax: 312-751-7306
www.academychicago.com, publicity@academychicago.com