Comedy of growing up unveiled

This little girl came to California before most Americans could find Iran on a map

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When Firoozeh Dumas was 7 years old, her engineer father brought his family from Abadan, Iran, to Whittier, Calif., to complete a two-year consultancy for the National Iranian Oil Company. They arrived laden with the dreams and mythologies that have accompanied people to America for 300 years.

For her father, the United States was "a nation full of clean bathrooms, a land where traffic laws were obeyed and where whales jumped through hoops. It was the promised land." For little Firoozeh, California was "where I could buy more outfits for Barbie."

Her memoir, "Funny in Farsi," provides not only a glimpse into southern California's Iranian-American community, but hilarious observations on the absurdities of 1970s America, land of La-Z Boys, Hamburger Helper, and the "Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour."

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Dumas's mother sets about learning English from Monty Hall and Bob Barker and therefore prices the grocery list without going a penny over $19.99.

Dumas spends most of her first day of school lost, with her mother, wandering the strange land of suburban Whittier, where a large Mexican population allows them to blend in until they open their mouths. Eventually, they're rescued by kind neighbors who throughout her school career go out of their way to introduce her to peanut-butter and Oreo cookies, invite her to slumber parties, and step in to make sure she has a Halloween costume.

These same neighbors are repeatedly confounded by the exact whereabouts and pronunciation of Iran, and poor Dumas tirelessly answers questions about camels (which she's never seen) and Persian cats (which she's never heard of).

But any sarcasm that may seep through these pages from the grown-up Dumas is muted by the 7-year-old's wide-eyed openness, her child's devotion to veracity, and an utter lack of pretension.

"After spending an entire day in America, surrounded by Americans," writes Dumas at the end of her first essay, "I realized that my father's description of America had been correct. The bathrooms were clean and the people were very, very kind."

Of course this picture gets complicated on Nov. 4, 1979, the day militant Iranian students seized the American Embassy in Iran during the country's Islamic Revolution. Suddenly everyone, including Whittier housewives, has heard of Iran. The young Dumas spots bumper stickers reading, "I Play Cowboys and Iranians" or "Iranians Needed for Target Practice," and her mother begins to tell strangers that they're from Turkey.

But the tone remains light. There are no sweeping universal truths to be uncovered here. Dumas's landscape features funny habits, incongruent cultural details, and behavioral quirks rather than more penetrating psychological landmarks. At its best, her perky, comic cadence reads like a good stand-up routine.

In fact, Dumas is very funny, and demonstrates a gift for wry understatement and spot-on similes. That no one in America seems to have noticed Iran on the map makes the schoolgirl Firoozeh feel a little like "driving a Yugo and realizing that the eighteen-wheeler can't see you."

The most insightful and all-round best essays are at the beginning of the collection, those dealing with the family's arrival in America and their attempts to adjust. Three essays midway through the book, "The F Word," "Waterloo," and "America, Land of the Free," are hilarious and display Dumas's natural feel for comedy.

Beyond that point, however, the quality and interest of the writing weakens - particularly in an essay narrating an experience in the Bahamas and another about a San Francisco earthquake, neither of which belongs in the collection.

The momentum is recovered with the last essay, on Dumas's father, "If I Were a Rich Man." In fact, much of the best writing in "Funny in Farsi" creates an impressive, touching portrait of Dumas's father, whose last name is never revealed to protect the privacy of this family, whom Dumas (her married name) subjects to endless, good-natured ridicule.

Readers are treated to the details of her father's devotion to Walt Disney and his determination to find a good deal - an obsession that lands him a disastrous appearance on "Bowling for Dollars" and one that compels him to get entire meals from the samples at Price Club.

However, filtering through Dumas's send-up of her father, one finds an endearing portrait of a determined and intelligent Iranian man, once a Fulbright scholar, working to make a better life for his family in a free country. It's an invigorated version of an old tale - the mythical narrative of the American Dream.

Janet Saidi is a freelance writer in San Diego, Calif.

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