It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

Zomorod Yousefzadeh just wants to fit in.  Before she starts 6th grade at her new Newport Beach middle school, she changes her name to Cindy, a name she gets from the Brady Brunch.  Born in  Iran, she spent two years in Compton, Ca. before going back to Iran for a year with her parents and then returning to Compton, where  no one at her school could say her name.  Having moved back and forth so much their family motto is to not buy stuff that breaks easily.  They’ve just moved to a condo in Newport Beach.  To Zomorod, it seems like galaxies away though it’s only one hour by car.   Given the Rules for Condominium Living by the condescending landlady, her father tells her to translate it for her mother. She balks.  The welcome page shows a typical American family with a boy and a girl next to a barbecue.  Zomorod doesn’t think her family looks anything like the people in the picture, but she thinks that they can relate, since her family loves grilling.  Her father calls himself the “King of Kebabs.”

After the summer goes by pretty much friendless,  except with a short friendship with the51RRffOg3KL next door girl, also a Cindy.   As Cindy, she faces some humiliating days at the beginning of school,  and runs to her classes to inform her teachers about her name change before roll call.   Soon though she makes friends with Carolyn.  She loves going to Carolyn’s house whose mother make tacos and takes them Trick or Treating on  Halloween.   Carolyn gets her to join the Girl Scouts which leads to more friends.

Like many first generation American children, Cindy is embarrassed by her parents lack of knowledge about how things are done here.  It takes her a long time before she has her friends over  to her house.  She hates translating for her mother, and particularly dislikes the Iranian custom of taarof, the Iranian form of being polite and like extreme Southern hospitality, where you keep denying yourself and offering food or tea to guests.  In taarof, it is expected that the guest who says no, they don’t really mean it  and are just being polite.

Expecting to return to Iran, her mother refuses accommodate to life in California; she won’t make a huge turkey for the three of them for Thanksgiving and when she goes to buy camping equipment for Girl Scout camp, she’s annoyed that her father won’t buy her things that aren’t on sale.  But Cindy’s not a whiner; she makes the best of things.

Then, because the novel is set in the last years of  the 1970s, as the political situation with Iran gets increasingly bad over a year, Cindy and her parents begin to worry about their family members in Iran.  They are taunted and recieve threats from neighbors and strangers, including a dead hamster with a note, “ Go back to Iran,” which Cindy keeps quiet.  At school she hears she’s threatened and “Bomb Iran” becomes a popular song.  Cindy and her family turn inwards as the American hostage situation goes on for months and months.   Still jobless and with no hopes of finding employment, her father decides they must return to Iran as they cannot afford to live here.  That’s when Cindy and her family discover who their friends really are.

This semi-autobiographical novel is inspiring and delightful, it’s funny and moves quickly with its short chapters.  During her three years of middle school, Cindy goes from being a shy, timid girl, to one who can stand up for herself and her family.  In conjunction with the book, Dumas is starting a Falafel Kindness Project which will be up on her website soon.   She will post stories by students and educators about acts of kindness they’ve experience.  After all, In A Streetcar Named Desire Blanche DuBois said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”  which Cindy posted in her room and which the author uses as a lead to her Acknowledgments.

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