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Firoozeh Dumas up next at Aspen Winter Words

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Weekly
Stephanie RausserIranian-American humorist Firoozeh Dumas appears this week in an Aspen Writers' Foundation's Winter Words event at the Given Institute.
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In the effort to cross cultural gaps, there are some things humor simply cannot achieve. For instance: Shake ‘n Bake. For Americans who grew up with that quintessential though nutritionally baffling convenience food, the memory of the ’70s-era commercials – mom tossing around a plastic bag filled with raw chicken and cereal crumbs; the kids proudly exclaiming, “And we helped!” – is rich with comic potential.But break out a Shake ‘n Bake gag for a crowd of, say, Muslims from the Middle East, and the best you could hope for is blank stares. “You can’t possibly describe that to someone from another culture,” the Iranian-American writer Firoozeh Dumas said.Which still leaves plenty that humor can accomplish – like empathy, opening up paths for dialogue, and creating connections between cultures. Humor isn’t generally seen as a thing of great substance and significance: Typically, the only intentionally funny bits to be found in a newspaper are on the comics page; President Obama has aides and undersecretaries assigned to everything from food security to giant invasive snakes, but he doesn’t have a single staffer assigned to the task of making people laugh. (Although Joe Biden occasionally seems to be making a bid for the role.) In addition to the oft-mentioned snubbing of comedies at the Academy Awards, Dumas notes that “humorous books don’t get reviewed.”But they do get readers engaged, and often in meaningful ways. “You can learn just as much from a book that makes you laugh out loud as one that makes you cry out loud,” Dumas said. “Humor is a vehicle, and you can use it to tell any story you want.”The 44-year-old Dumas has told her story – of being a woman with one foot in Iranian culture and the other in California – in two collections of essays: 2003’s “Funny in Farsi,” which focused on her childhood as an immigrant to Orange County; and 2008’s’ “Laughing Without an Accent,” which spans from her youth to her present-day existence as a wife, mother of three and successful writer in Palo Alto. Dumas brings a lighthearted touch to such topics as the difficulty Americans have in pronouncing her name (it’s “Fee-ROO-zay”) and translating her books into Farsi, to Disneyland and Jewish neighbors. Despite the impossibility of explaining Shake ‘n Bake, food – including Chips Ahoy, Betty Crocker Rich & Creamy Frosting, the Persian stew khoresht-e bademjun and an entire chapter devoted to the French fry incident – is a constant in Dumas’ stories.The juiciest – and most endearing, and most revealing – subject, however, is Dumas’ father, Kazem. An engineer who did graduate studies in Texas and California, Kazem moved the family from Abadan, Iran, to Whittier, Calif., in the early ’70s, when he was assigned to consult for an American oil company. In Dumas’ stories, her father comes off as intelligent – he was a Fulbright Scholar – but also a character endlessly fascinated with America, whose hero was Walt Disney, and whose eyes grow wide at the sight of TV game shows, free birthday meals at Denny’s, and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride.Kazem is not only the subject of much of the comedy, but also the source from which Dumas draws her own sense of humor. “For me, it’s very similar to if you have an athletic parent,” she said. “I have a very, very funny father, a guy who looks at life through this prism. I could never hope to be as funny as him. He grew up poor, and thus is very appreciative of the tiny things in life, and that can come off as funny. My husband says he never enjoys going to Starbucks as much as he does when he goes with my father: ‘Look at the pile of napkins! And another! And another pile of napkins!’ That’s a great way to be in life.”Kazem, who is 84, retired and living in Newport Beach, Calif., seems not to have lost his playful, innocent optimism. When he heard that his daughter would be making an appearance in Aspen – Thursday, Feb. 4, at the Given Institute in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series – he asked Firoozeh, “Did they invite me?”Soon enough, Kazem might actually find himself in the spotlight. ABC-TV is currently filming a pilot episode based on “Funny in Farsi,” directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, best known for the “Men in Black” films. Dumas is acting as an unofficial consultant on the pilot, but an essential part of her vision for the project has been realized: For the role of her father, she wanted Maz Jobrani, the Iranian-born comedian who has headlined on the Axis of Evil comedy tour. Jobrani will play Mohammed Jazayeri, a character based on Kazem.••••In her youth, Dumas moved back and forth between Iran and California several times as her father switched career assignments. After attending college at Berkeley, she joined the marketing department of a computer company. She despised the work so completely that she couldn’t imagine there was work she might enjoy: “I thought you were supposed to hate your job,” she said. After marrying a French-born software engineer, Dumas had two kids and spent more than eight years as a stay-at-home mom. Dumas didn’t spend any of this time thinking about putting her stories down on paper; she had no aspirations to be a writer. But among the things that changed on Sept. 11 was Dumas’ perspective on her past and on her adopted country. The 9/11 attacks, and the subsequent attention paid to people with certain looks and certain names, caused her to reflect back to 1979, when a group of Islamists took over the American embassy in Tehran and held more than 50 Americans hostage for 444 days. Dumas felt herself being looked at differently then: “[B]umper stickers and T-shirts sprouted everywhere telling us Iranians that we were no longer welcome in this country. Of course, that’s putting it nicely,” she wrote in “Laughing Without an Accent.””When I was living in the U.S. in the early ’70s, people were so kind to us we didn’t to return home,” Dumas said. “People had never heard of Iran.”She saw a changed cultural landscape upon her return, following the hostage situation. “It was a totally different America,” she said. The country that had been so kind now looked at the teenage Firoozeh with suspicion. “Why do people jump on this hatred bandwagon so quickly? How do you hate an entire people? I’ve reached the conclusion that that’s the flaw we have as humans: We hate very quickly. The difference between being evolved and not is the ability to hold back and say, ‘Why am I doing this?'”Following 9/11, Dumas decided to write her stories for the sake of her children. (She has two teenagers and a 3-year-old – all by the same husband, she points out.) She didn’t intend for them to be funny, but she seemed to have been guided not only by her father, but also by one of her childhood heroes, Erma Bombeck, who brought a gentle touch of humor to tales of domestic life.”I was shocked to find out that these stories were funny,” Dumas said of her own writing. “I had no idea.”Six months after its publication, “Funny in Farsi” was selected for the Orange County Reads One Book program, with readers from Dana Point to Yorba Linda getting insight into the Iranian-American experience. Dumas was especially pleased with one segment of the readership: teachers, who assigned the book to their students and spread the word to colleagues across the country. She became a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, the first Middle Eastern woman so honored. She lost to Jon Stewart.Dumas finds it understandable that it is rare for Americans to equate Iran with laughs. Most all of the writing about Iran has to do with nuclear weapons, diplomatic showdowns, the simmering revolution in the streets and the brutal suppression of anti-government voices. “There is a dearth of material that has to do with Iran and humor,” Dumas acknowledged. But she added that humor has played a vital role in the Islamic country.”You look at Iran, and it’s a sad, sad place,” she added. “But humor is a big part of Iranian life. We’ve always had oppressive leaders and we’ve always dealt with it with humor. That’s how we’ve survived. The number of jokes about the current president of Iran – that man could fill book after book.”Dumas’ books don’t repeat those jokes; she mostly keeps her distance from Iran’s politics. Instead, what the humor in “Funny in Farsi” and “Laughing Without an Accent” does is humanize a race of people. Focusing on the offbeat characteristics of her family and their habits, dealing with neighbors, spouses and her own frailties, Firoozeh from Abadan can seem just like Franny from Aberdeen.In fact, Dumas’ presentations are often pitched as being on the topic of “shared humanity.” But Dumas has learned that humor is not only emotionally powerful, but also a good marketing tool. “If I told people I’m giving a talk on shared humanity, two people would show up. But if they knew I was going to make them laugh, they’ll come,” she said.Proof of just how powerful humor is is the reception Dumas has gotten in her native land. She says her books are far more popular in Iran than in the States. Still, she doesn’t dare return to the country. The powers in Iran – officially the Islamic Republic of Iran, and controlled by an authoritative “Supreme Leader” – are not laughing at Dumas’ stories.”I would be in prison the minute I set foot on that soil,” she said.stewart@aspentimes.com


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