An Immigrant Family Changes the Way It Mourns

A family from Iran learns a new way to mourn a death in this commentary from Firozeh Dumas. She is the author of the book Funny in Farsi.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A family from Iran learns a new way to mourn death in this next story from commentator Firoozeh Dumas.

FIROOZEH DUMAS: Ask any immigrant what a simulation means and each person will give you a different answer. I knew that America had changed me the day I realized that I love ice tea. My parents still think that ice in tea is very, very wrong. But I have come to realize that despite their uncompromising taste buds, my Iranian family has been profoundly changed in more important ways.

I recently attended the memorial service of my uncle, Sagid Abdullah Jazayree(ph). Now, you have to understand that in the Middle East and in my native Iran, mourning is serious business. We mourn the day a loved one passes, the day he is buried, three days after, seven days after, 40 days after and on the one year mark. After that we mourn every year the day of the passing.

All these events are somber and serious. Everyone wears black and the tears flow freely. We wail, we sob, we wail again. This is why I was so surprised when I was told that my Uncle Abdullah's memorial was to be a celebration of his life. That sounded so American, a celebration of life.

To complicate matters, my cousin Mahmoud asked me to speak. When I think of my Uncle Abdullah, I think not only of a man whom I loved deeply, but also of man who was constantly lost on the freeway. I think of a man who set out one day to drive one hour north to Los Angeles and instead drove two hours south to the Mexican border, claiming the whole time he knew exactly where he was going. In the Iranian culture, this is not the type of story one shares at a memorial service. I was afraid that humor would give the impression that I was not sad.

The event started with my cousin Mahmoud recounting his father's personal and professional achievements. This is what we all expected. Six hundred people listened quietly as my cousin recounted the life of his father, from his humble beginnings in the south of Iran to his life in California. Some sobbed quietly.

Then my cousin told the audience that his father at age 70 decided to learn the flute. I assumed this story would highlight my uncle's endless love of learning. Instead, my cousin told us that although his father lacked musical talent, he kept practicing. He practiced so much and so badly that his condominium association asked him to stop.

And that is when I heard something that I never thought I would hear at an Iranian memorial service. Laughter, tenuous laughter. My cousin Mete got up to speak. He couldn't, he was crying. After a few awkward minutes, he told a few stories about what a loving father and grandfather my uncle had been. Then he told the audience that his father missed the birth of his son because he got lost on the way to the hospital. The audience laughed.

Mete told us that they had practiced driving to the hospital half a dozen times with his father because he had a tendency to get lost. But he still got lost. The audience roared. By now, everyone knew it was okay to laugh.

To be able to remember my uncle with laughter was a gift my family received from America. My family came here, like every other immigrant family, looking for a better life. We found not only that, but permission to remember it. Even in the face of death.

NORRIS: Firoozeh Dumas is the author of the book Funny in Farsi.

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