Laughing Without An Accent: Adventures of a Global Citizen
By Firoozeh Dumas
Random House; $15.00, paper
With all the disagreements, fears, and hatreds among the people of the world, and what seems like the total failure of diplomacy to solve these issues over the last few years, I often wonder if the world would be a more peaceful place if we all got together over some good ethnic food, a nice bottle of wine, and some deep conversation. Certainly such an event would not further damage the situation.
Firoozeh Dumas’ recent book, Laughing Without An Accent: Adventures of a Global Citizen, feels like the reader and writer are meeting for coffee and some good, often very funny, conversation. Dumas is an excellent story teller, able to capture a moment at the tattered edges where one culture meets another, and uncover the human truth and humor inherent in such cultural clashes.
Dumas is originally from Iran through Berkeley, California, married to the “Frenchman,” as she calls him, a true multi-cultural citizen experiencing firsthand what it is like to meld food, language, dress, and religion from all over the world and somehow manage to teach the children (she has two) well.
In the first section of the book, Dumas discusses her search for a translator for her debut set of memoirs, Funny In Farsi. “Iran does not currently adhere to international copyright law,” she writes. “This comes as a shock to most people, given Iran’s law-abiding image.” She is trying to keep control of the process, but in her native country, anyone who wishes may translate a book and sell it to the public. This leads to all kinds of bootlegging and rogue publishing. She relates the story of a respected history professor who upon discovering the translated text of his book is radically different from his original, confronts the publisher in Iran only to be told, “Our translation is better than your book.”
Dumas spends much time discussing the way humor moves from language to language, culture to culture. Some things just don’t translate, like Carol Burnett’s Tarzan yell. In the end, the book is translated successfully, and Dumas is invited to receive an award in her country. When she asks the editor why he thought the book was successful with the Iranian people, he replies, “Your stories are funny, but the way you write about nationalities—you don’t make one bad and one good. We don’t hate Americans.”
In the chapter entitled, “Eight Days A Week,” Dumas analyzes the difference between education in Iran and school in America. “When I met my first teacher in America…I was so confused. She was so nice.” It is here in America that Dumas discovers the magic of books, reading and the library. As a child, she had a hard time believing that libraries loaned books. She brings along her purse on her first trip with her brother, thinking she must pay a fee at some point, and returns pleasantly surprised when she simply borrows the books. School in Iran, she remembers, was much different. Hours of homework, teachers were “stern, feared, and respected.” They gave no compliments and few superior grades. “Our teachers did not try to be our friends or to be liked,” she writes. “They were there to teach us.” Holidays in America like Halloween she finds ridiculous because schools lose a whole day of instruction to candy and parties. This would never happen in Iran.
In Iran, students face a challenging reading curriculum: Dickens, Twain, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Gorky, Nietzsche, Borges, Arthur Koestler, Stefan Zweig, Sartre, De Beauvoir, and Camus. Her father’s position with the National Iranian Oil Company gives her a privileged seat in better schools. Dumas takes advantage of this education, leading her to one of the best California universities, U.C. Berkeley. “I give credit to my Iranian schools for teaching me discipline. I learned that school meant work, not play. I never expected my teachers to make subjects fun. Fun was what I had with my friends, outside the classroom.” This is a refreshing change from the occasional “can’t we do something fun today” that I get from my students. Dumas believes the problem is that “Delayed gratification has fallen out of fashion.” What hope can Americans have for the future, she says, when smart kids “are called nerds and geeks and dorks?” A country that allows smart kids to be made fun of and bullied faces a descent into stupidity and banality. Welcome to the American twenty-first century.
There is much to love in this book, and not all of it is funny. Like the best humorists, Dumas has a satirical, sometimes bitter cast to her observations. And there is sadness, like the chapter about the death of her uncle. She explains how Iranians and Muslims mourn for the dead. But later, the family holds a more American funeral service featuring family members eulogizing the departed. There are pictures of her uncle in flush times, and near the end of his life when he is “frail and tired” from his battle with illness. He was a man, Dumas remembers, who always had a book with him, and who loved reading. “My uncle, along with the rest of my family, came to America seeking a better life,” she writes. “Like so many immigrants before us, we found not only what we wanted but a few things we didn’t even know we were looking for…”
I grew up with the Iran of the American hostages, held in captivity for 444 days. I clearly remember the angry fire of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the fatwa and Salman Rushdie, and now, the presidency and nuclear thuggery of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Firoozeh Dumas is a change of pace, a breath of fresh air. Through her writing, we can laugh at the culture clash, the differences in people, the richness and beauty of life. For the first time in my life, I sat down with an Iranian. I laughed, I heard her stories, I recognized that we are different, yet remarkably, we have much in common. I discovered that laughter does not have an accent, and I had fun.