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Common ground
Three Iranian women tell their stories
Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America
By Firoozeh Dumas. Villard, 202 pages, $21.95.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
By Marjane Satrapi. Pantheon, 160 pages, $17.95.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
By Azar Nafisi. Random House, 364 pages, $23.95.

The closer the Middle East gets, the farther away it seems. Despite the plethora of news stories and TV coverage, most Westerners have no way of relating to the people and the culture of this part of the world. Which is why three Iranian women were driven to write about their lives in and out of Iran, which is still under strict Muslim law and one of the big three in George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil. By telling their side of the story, they bring the texture of day-to-day life in the Middle East a little nearer, and they make some surprising connections with Western culture.

In Funny in Farsi, Firoozeh Dumas takes the "We’re different but we’re the same" approach, looking back and laughing at her misadventures growing up in America. Starting at age seven, when she was plucked from the small town of Abadan and dropped into the alien world of Whittier, California (where Richard Nixon went to high school and college), the story reads like an A-to-Z of culture shock — the idiosyncrasies of American English, the joys of junk food, the spectacle that is Disneyland — seen through the blush of awkward adolescence.

Dumas’s pages bulge with inoffensive stereotypes — not a bad thing if all you want to do is squeeze out some chuckles. Dad is the lovable bumbler, utterly endearing whether he’s entering the local bowling league or installing lopsided bathroom cabinets. In supporting roles, Mom is addicted to TV quiz shows, and Uncle chows down on fast food while spending all his cash on weight-loss gadgets. It’s exactly the kind of good, clean, all-American (immigrant) tale that should sport a blurb from Jimmy Carter — and it does, right on the back cover.

Which makes Dumas’s story a bit generic. What young girl hasn’t found herself babysitting a tyrannical child for minimum wage? Who doesn’t have an embarrassing tale from camp? And when Dumas does make a point of her immigrant experience, it usually falls short of being uniquely Iranian — or unique at all. She may have decided to call herself Julie rather than face endless mispronunciations, but every Arab name has suffered the same mangling by Western tongues (after years of Joanna, Juanita, and Jumanji, I went through high school introducing myself as JJ). The blandness of American food — e.g., turkey that doesn’t taste like anything — isn’t surprising to anyone whose palate developed outside an English-speaking country. And being mistaken for Hispanic by Americans who don’t distinguish between skin tones? Been there.

The problem is that Funny in Farsi isn’t completely sure of its audience. The author assumes a level of knowledge about Iranian history (she briefly touches on the "political upheaval in Iran" without ever explaining exactly what happened during the 1979 Islamic revolution) but then bases most of her gags on American ignorance of her homeland. Half the time, she’s reveling in her adopted society; the other half, she’s rolling her eyes at it. When complaining about an awful Las Vegas vacation, she looks back, misty-eyed, at her childhood holidays: "In Iran, ‘vacation’ meant going to the Caspian Sea. . . . Days were spent at the beach, where we built sand castles, looked for seashells, and played in the waves." But just six pages later, she compares her childhood with her affluent French husband’s: "To my family, a vacation usually meant going to a relative’s house and sleeping on the floor, squeezed between several cousins." So which is it?

Funny in Farsi shines when Dumas dispenses with the mocking tone and just tells a good yarn: her loving description of how to prepare a typical Persian meal; the time her family were caught in an anti-Iranian riot in DC but worried only about dropping their souvenirs; her elaborate wedding celebration complete with long-distance ritual lamb slaughter (since you can’t slaughter a lamb on your front porch in LA, we learn, you can pay to have relatives perform the ceremony back home). In these passages, her voice is full of color and humor, and she raises her family above caricature.

Of course, Dumas has the luxury of looking on the lighter side, since she moved to America before the Islamic revolution sparked violent riots in the streets of Iran and made women practically invisible. In her comic-book memoir Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Marjane Satrapi walks us through her adolescence — and that revolution — from her youthful fantasy of becoming a prophet to the introduction of the veil, the imprisonment and execution of family friends, and then the Iranian war with Iraq. Zipping along on energy, irony, and wit, the book is a powerful coming-of-age story.

Satrapi explores the conflicting feelings she had as a girl whose lifestyle, religion, and country came under threat. She’s brought up as deeply religious, but she rejects the veil. While her modern pacifist parents are out protesting, she plays soldiers in the playground. More than once she expresses a desire to fight — first for the revolution, later against the Arab invasion — though she’s too young to understand the consequences of war. When the protests turn ugly, when her mother is verbally attacked on the street, when her neighbor’s home is leveled by a bomb, another piece of her protective shell of naïveté is chipped away.

Satrapi’s children’s-book-simple line drawings also depict hidden joys: her father’s smuggling a Kim Wilde poster from Turkey inside the lining of his jacket; her discovery of a real-life hero in the family; her conversations with God. The intrinsic innocence of the medium gives her story gravity when things get serious. As the shah’s rule nears its end, one panel shows a conga line of corpses pushing him out of the picture; it’s a poignant and haunting image.

From the start, Satrapi makes it clear that her mission is to dispel the Western notion of Iran as a land of fundamentalists and terrorists. Unlike the comic book she read when she was young — called Dialectic Materialism, it boiled down the theories of Marx and Descartes into kidspeak — Persepolis is not for children; it’s a serious graphic-novel treatment along the lines of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde. Too bad it won’t be seen by more American readers.

English-literature professor Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books follows the lives of seven girls in her secret reading group, and it’s a dynamic portrait of living as a woman in Tehran during the revolution. Two paragraphs in, she wags a finger: "Do not, under any circumstances, belittle a work of fiction by trying to turn it into a carbon copy of real life; what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth."

Sage advice, but impossible to follow when her story is broken up into parts titled "Lolita," "Gatsby," and "James" (as in Henry). When the girls discuss Humbert’s violation of the young Lolita, Nafisi can’t help drawing parallels: "Like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom . . . by showing a little hair from under our scarves . . . growing our nails, falling in love and listening to forbidden music." She insists that The Great Gatsby is not an allegory, but later she compares Gatsby’s obsessions with Iran’s unrealistic and ultimately destructive dream of political and religious freedom.

Of course, the works of literature are merely the grounding for Nafisi’s story. She knows her readers will be familiar with most of these books, so she uses them as columns around which to build an unfamiliar world. She relays the intimate details of life under the regime, from the bliss of eating an illicit ham sandwich to the feeling of hiding within the folds of her robe and veil. Woven into discussions with students and friends, her study of the texts is often engaging and insightful; yet it can also stall the flow of her story. In the middle of describing her fear during a bombing raid, she segues to a passage from Daisy Miller to cite the heroine’s courage, and the visceral experience of the moment is lost.

The way her students interpret the books — the radicals deemed The Great Gatsby immoral but others found it eye-opening — is fascinating. Nafisi, who was condemned by the school authorities for teaching "decadent" material and later turned out for refusing to don the veil, stands a few steps back, as if she were writing about herself as a fictional character, and that gives her words room to breathe. Her anger — at the ideological rape of her favorite books, at the rules that say she cannot wear nail polish — simmers just beneath her eloquence, only occasionally bubbling to the surface.

Although all three authors left relatives and friends behind (Satrapi’s parents sent her to Switzerland, Nafisi took her family to America), they tell their stories without overblown bitterness. Having been born female in Iran, they portray themselves as survivors rather than victims, digging up beauty and humor from under what others see as rubble, and making the Middle East that much less mysterious. If change begins with understanding and, more important, tolerance, then by opening up their lives, Dumas, Satrapi, and Nafisi have made a vital step in the right direction.

Issue Date: August 15 - 21, 2003
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