Judging Places Based on the News
It could have been a bitter book about growing up in a foreign land, a land that has its share of xenophobic, socially retarded blow-hards. But Funny in Farsi is…funny!
Ms Dumas came to Fairfax, VA to speak with social studies teachers about her book, but also with a message about how to view other cultures. She mentioned a possible homework assignment: have students watch the news for a week, and then come to general conclusions about the United States based on the news stories. They will find, she said, that the conclusions will be pretty darn depressing. Now, we live here. We can counterbalance the news with our own experiences. But when there is news of the Middle East, it is all negative, and most of us do not have that experience to provide ballast. And so the stereotype of the Middle East does not include lightheartedness, humor, fun, and playfulness. Uh uh.
Ms Dumas told of a woman who was surprised to learn that Iranian parents hold birthday parties for their kids —- just like Americans!
In marketing her book, Ms Dumas was told by literary agents that Americans would not buy a funny book about Middle Easterners. People wanted the stereotype — the terrorists, the oppressed, the brutalized and the brutalizers. Not birthday parties. But her book was published, and a funny thing happened: it became a best seller in the US, and a very popular book in Iran. The gatekeepers of American books by and large called it wrongly when it came to what Americans wanted. And stereotypes took another hit in Iran. The people (who, contrary to popular belief in this country, tend to like Americans) ate up the book. The radical Shi’ite government — not so much. She cannot go back to the country of her birth because the government does not share the people’s sense of humor.
The message to educators was about news bias, but also about taking care not to insert preconceptions about kids based on cultural stereotypes.
A note about educators. Maybe because in any situation where someone is at the front of the room talking, that someone is usually the teacher, when we are not up there, we don’t know how to act. Just as teachers typically make awful students (in classes full of teachers, we tend to do all of those annoying things that we won’t let our students do, from the audible yawns to texting in class to talking too loudly), they also tend to be rude audiences. In the midst of Ms Dumas’ wonderful talk, there were teachers on their Blackberries, teachers looking at their watches, teachers holding little meetings. During the question-and-answer session, one woman gave a speech, as if to say, “You are but an internationally acclaimed author and award-winning speaker, but now you have had credibility conferred upon you by an eighth grade civics teacher. You are so blessed!”
Ms Dumas spoke of the need for tolerance and diversity, and told of the nastiness she saw when some people reacted to the Iranian hostage situation in 1979. But fully embedded were glowing testaments to the American system. She spoke in almost spiritual terms about the idea of a library, a place filled with books that one may borrow. In Iran, no library…..no books! Human rights for Ms Dumas are not something to be taken lightly; when she talks to people in Iran, they long to be free to read, to write, to dress, to Cerf the Web as they see fit.
Funny in Farsi is about funny things that happen to a family. It is also a book that takes human understanding seriously. When she addresses groups, she does the same in a very engaging way.
Filed under Opinion by My Two Cents