Many Iranian-Americans have found themselves migrating to the United States in search of a new beginning, but are left with a lingering sense of diaspora. Even with such diverse travels, as well as writing to reflect on such experiences, the image of the East remains a poor one due to the media serving as the primary source of information for the public. Funny in Farsi is a bestselling memoir in both Iran and the USA, written by the American-Iranian writer Firoozeh Dumas, portraying what it was like for an Iranian female to move to the “Promised Land” at a young age with her family. Originally intended as a gift for her children, these stories follow her footsteps through life and by encompassing the theme of shared humanity, the reading audience, too, sympathizes with this outsider. By using the disarming weapon of humor, she is able to bring home an understanding of the fact that we are one human race and one human family. This notion of global identity does not leave room for othering in the binary opposition between the West and the East. By exploring the theories of Edward Said, this his paper aims to shed light on concepts such as orientalism, imaginative geography, the “self” versus the “other”, and diaspora in its most broad sense. This postcolonial reading will pull out the most important issues that face those who are in diaspora with the aim to prove that writings such as these will help to develop and better the image of the East for future generations to come, and dismantle false discourses to an extent.
Firoozeh Dumas, the author of Funny in Farsi (2003), tells stories unique to her experience, growing up as an Iranian in America, but ultimately, it is about shared humanity. The melding of cultures and the struggles of these people are reflected in this memoir, showing the differences in first and second generation Iranians and how adapting to life in another culture is different for each. She puts her unique mark on the themes of family, community, and tradition with keen insight into human behavior as she explains of what was left behind and what was awaiting her. Postcolonialism seeks to illustrate the ways in which race, ethnicity, culture, and the human identity itself are represented in the modern era, after many colonized countries gained their independence. Whilst many people in the West have read or heard about and even seen Iranians on TV, only a few have met one in person. Said argues that: “one aspect of the electronic, postmodern world is that there has been a reinforcement of the stereotypes by which the Orient is viewed.
Television, the films, and all the media’s resources have forced information into more and more standardized molds”. Firoozeh Dumas explains that when she traveled throughout the United States, there were many places where she was “the only Middle Eastern those people had actually met” (“Firoozeh Dumas: Laughing Without An Accent” 00:14:33-34). Surprising as it may be, Edward Said’s works on the Western misinterpretations of the East can be seen at hand in a country with such a vast diversity. Orientalism has revealed itself as a model for the many ways in which the strategies of the West, namely America in the case chosen to be proved, for knowing the colonized world became the strategies for dominating that world. Much of the image the West has about the East continues to be dark and incorrect because of these worldly affairs. In short, as Said puts it: “Anyone resident in the West since the 1950s, particularly in the United States, will have lived through an era of extraordinary turbulence in the relations of East and West. No one will have failed to note how “East” has always signified danger and threat during this period”. The vast discourse of Orientalism as a cultural and political phenomenon, in connection to a colonial legacy that defines the West against the East, is a continuous process of othering that feeds global politics and propagates cultural imperialism to this day. Concerning the roots of this binary opposition, Said believes that: “Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”)”.
Dumas uses humor as a disarming weapon to bring home an understanding of the fact that we are one human race and one human family; this notion of global identity does not leave room for othering. Through her stories, she explores what it is like to be an American from Iran to highlight what is lost in the rhetoric of debate about the United States immigration policy: that although each immigrant’s country of origin and motive for leaving are widely diverse, the experience of being an immigrant in the United States surpasses all cultural divides. Just as with Said who did not write Orientalism (1978) as a means to eliminate differences, Firoozeh Dumas, too, seems to have had the effect of giving a new reading of the separations and differences that have given rise to hostility, conflict, and the emergence of imperialist control. With the mutual consensus that this is not an immutable situation, but rather a historical experience whose end (or at least the partial overcoming of which) can be at hand, one can hope that texts such as that of Dumas’s can bring about a revelation amongst its readers, especially the younger generation, that will eventually lead to change.
REVIEW OF RELATED LITERATURE
Over the past 50 years, a significant body of literary and autobiographical works, many in the form of memoirs, has emerged by Iranian female writers in diaspora. The study of women’s memoirs in the late 20th century and 21st century all deal with issues of identity and the self in one way or another. Identity is a fundamental core in analyzing culture. In Bilingualism and Gender in the Literature of Iranian Women in the Diaspora (2015) Rendy focuses on the (trans)formation of the gendered identity of these females as well as their linguistic and cultural hybridity by using postcolonial theories of bilingualism and gendered identities. She examines the relationship between bilingualism and female characters’ identity formation in recent memoirs of Iranian women in diaspora, including Dumas’s Funny in Farsi, and claims that “bilingualism leads to identity crisis and social conflict for the female characters and narrators”.
Rendy goes into detail about the different role language plays as a barrier in identity formation in the first and second generations, maintaining that “as transmitters and protectors of the value system of the community, the female characters of the first generation of immigrants are supposed to preserve the mother tongue” whereas “the female characters of the second generation are eager to learn the language and culture of the host country as an integration requirement.” While this may be true, this statement can be expanded to apply to Kazem, the male character in the two novels of Firoozeh Dumas who “would figure so prominently” as she puts it. “Often, I would start a story about myself, and by the time I was finished, it was about my father.” The diasporic language of this important male character is not explored in this study. Fotouhi’s Self-Orientalism and Reorientation deals with gender dichotomy in the Middle East and the interest of the West in understanding this dichotomy. She employs Edward Said’s theories and contends that the memoirs of the Middle Eastern women are involved in self-orientalisation. She examines most memoirs of Iranian women and she does not focus on one specific work.
This paper, instead, focuses only on the memoir of Firoozeh Dumas in further elaboration. For the purpose of this research, Dumas’s Funny in Farsi has been chosen to be analyzed to comprehend the conditions of Iranian immigrants who move to America. Dumas’s memoir is different from other memoirs by Iranian women in diaspora as it lacks the political aspects that others, such as Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), have made bold. Instead, Dumas focuses on the sociocultural issues she and her family had to face. Other memoirs, such as Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad (2005), focus on the political implications Iranian women face, one such being makeup. Still others, as with Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran (2006), are recount memories from a political prison. With it’s touch of humour, Firoozeh manages to give a social account of her experiances without getting political. Unlike most memoirs written by Iranian women in the last few decades, her personal story is not intertwined with traumatic events such as the revolution, war, loss and betrayal, an important theme in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000).
Edward Said defines Orientalism as “a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience”, but this definition is not confined to Europe. Even though the Orient is adjacent to Europe; it stands as the “deepest and most recurring images of the Other”. Europe’s oldest colonies lie in the lands of the Orient, so much of their civilization, language, and culture draws upon it. Why, then, should the binary of the East and West be created if they started as one? In order to answer this question, Said dives deep into politics and imperialism to prove that Orientalism is a discourse, a discourse with much power. In order to justify imperialistic conquests, a binary opposition has to come into play. Hence, the East is put against the West as the inferior, the other juxtaposed with the familiar. What this means is that the Europeans, and later the Americans, needed to establish that they were the refined race. This was possible because that is where all the power lies; in the West. Consequently, Easterners are exotic, they are classified as chaotic, indolent, savage and dissipated. This is taken further in the United States, because their “understanding of the Orient will seem considerably less dense”.
“With a Little Help from My Friends” is a key story in this memoir in proving how wrong the image of Easterners in general, and Iranians specifically, is in a country with so many Asian immigrants. In the beginning of the story, Firoozeh reveals that: “We had always known that ours is a small country and that America is very big. But even as a seven-year-old, I was surprised that so many Americans had never noticed us on the map” (19). The lack of educational levels on world geography about the East may be a strategy to keep the people of this land mysterious and unknown. The little information most Americans do have is mostly based on what is fed to them through the media. Many have an illusion of the reality they think exists on other side of the world, as exhibited by their questions: “They wanted to know about more important things, such as camels. How many did we own back home? What did we feed them? Was it a bumpy ride?” (19). When they were informed that people didn’t travel on camels, they were shocked. Firoozeh herself wonders “why Americans have a mistaken image of Iran” and learns it is because they depend upon the partial and often incorrect information they have gained from TV, as with their neighbor who told them “he knew about Iran because he had seen Lawrence of Arabia” (19).
This lack of knowledge, or (mis)knowledge, both result in a faulty image. What might result is an overgeneralization about Easterners. Said, in his essay entitled “Orientalism Once More”, explains that: “Every domain is linked to every other one, and that nothing that goes on in our world has ever been isolated and pure of any outside influence” (874). One should realize that a single action cannot be taken to define an entire nation, with regard to the fact that perhaps no major event is merely local, rather global roots are involved as well. A proposed solution to such a problem would be a better educating system to elevate the understanding of others towards other cultures. In the same essay, Said says: “My intellectual approach has been to use humanistic critique to open up the fields of struggle, to introduce a longer sequence of thought and analysis to replace the short bursts of polemical, thought-stopping fury that so imprison us in labels and antagonistic debate whose goal is a belligerent collective identity rather than understanding and intellectual exchange” (874). The next problem lies in affirmation of fixated knowledge. It is easier to hear what we think we know to be true confirmed than have our bubbles of illusion burst. Perhaps knowing this, and partly because she “got tired of the questions”, Firoozeh decided to experiment. She verified the lie that she indeed own camels. The American reaction was that running off to share his knowledge with the rest of the kids on the playground after hearing “what he wanted to hear” (20). This is not confined to children, but can also be seen in adults.
The fact that Firoozeh choose to share her stories with the world through literature has automatically given her power of presentation. Said believes that “It seems a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human”. Though in his view this is seen as a shortcoming, it is a mere fact that many take what is written, even though it may be out of context, and form their beliefs about what they think to be exotic based on that text. Therefore, choosing to incorporate humor in telling her memories, using the word “funny” in the title, and employing easy to understand language have worked to the benefit of Iranians to portray them in a new light. The genre of memoir is justified because it is the most natural form of the text and readers can thus sympathize and favor the “textual attitude”, but the subject remains humanity, in other words soft news. Such news when put against hard news becomes inferior, because it is not the image the imperialist world wants. Said says when “a human being confronts at close quarters something relatively unknown and threatening and previously distant.” Yet her book did touch many, especially in the United States when her book made it to the school reading lists.
In turn, even if a part of the world named the East, was and continues to be misrepresented, this book will is being read by the younger generation, those termed as “reluctant readers” by their teachers because the book is about being an outsider, someone who is poorly understood. As Firoozeh expresses herself: “You don’t have to be Iranian to relate.” (“Adventures of an Iranian American with Firoozeh Dumas” 00:16:56-58). Thus, her book opens the doors for people who have curiosity about their fellow men. She tells her aim is “I really want this post September 11 generation to have a different image of Iranians, because so many kids these days just think Middle Easterners means terrorist and I know this because I have spoken at schools and this is what the kids tell me”. Why this matters is that the United States strength relies on the teamwork between these very immigrants and such misconceptions will have its negative effects. It is difficult to get a good sense of Iran and Iranians from the media, but the news is not where you learn about the world.
In his essay, Said expresses his belief that the ability “to use one’s mind historically and rationally for the purposes of reflective understanding and genuine disclosure” is how we can avoid generalizations. The positive point lies in the fact that in America, everyone has an equal voice and to be able to contribute will make a difference. She concludes her interview entitled Adventures of an Iranian American with Firoozeh Dumas by saying “Whenever there’s news about a country, there’s always a human side to it and that human side, you have to look for.” In the fourth section (The Latest Phase) of the last chapter of his book entitled “Orientalism Now”, Said concludes: I consider Orientalism’s failure to have been a human as much as an intellectual one; for in having to take up a position of irreducible opposition to a region of the world it considered alien to its own, Orientalism failed to identify with human experience, failed also to see it as human experience. The worldwide hegemony of Orientalism and all it stands for can now be challenged, if we can benefit properly from the general twentieth-century rise to political and historical awareness of so many of the earth’s peoples. A translation of the poem written in the 13th century by Saadi on the entrance of the hall of nations of the UN building in New York reads: “Human beings are members of a whole In creation of one essence and soul If one member is afflicted with pain Other members uneasy will remain If you have no sympathy for human pain The name of human you cannot retain”