Middle Eastern American Literature: Then and Now


My Name is Aram
Funny in Farsi

Literature is one of the most effective entrées into a deep understanding of the immigrant experience in America. This unit will introduce short selections from two autobiographical novels/memoirs from immigrant communities in California from different periods in American history. William Saroyan’s My Name is Aram is a collection of fictionalized vignettes from Saroyan’s childhood growing up in an Armenian family in Fresno, California, in the early 20th century (1915-1925). Funny in Farsi is the comedic memoir of Firoozeh Dumas, who came from Iran with her family as a seven-year-old child in 1972 for two years, and then returned permanently to the U.S. in 1976.

These two compelling memoirs explore the dislocation of immigrant life through a humorous evocation of family members and their exuberant, if often misguided, adoption of American ways. Comparing and contrasting the experiences related in these two memoirs as well as the form of literary expression used by the two authors will give students a first-hand look at what it is to be an immigrant, strengthening their understanding of the warp and weft of American history.

Both the Armenian and Iranian immigrant communities have had a relatively positive experience economically in the United States. Both communities are now, statistically speaking, better educated and wealthier than the average immigrant community.  Armenians experienced discrimination in the early part of the 20th century, most vehemently in Fresno; however, that period was characterized with xenophobia, making all immigrants unwelcome. Since the Iran Hostage Crisis and the Islamic revolution (1978-79), Iranian Americans have been targets of discrimination and victims of backlash whenever the Iranian government is unfavorably portrayed in the news. This is ironic because many Iranians immigrated to the United States as refugees and exiles fleeing the Islamic regime.

The two literature selections in this unit concentrate on the day-to-day experience of immigrant dislocation rather than political upheaval. The writing of memoirs by immigrants allows authors, their communities, and the wider public to re-imagine and reflect upon the trials and tribulations of the newcomer, trying to adapt to a new world with a new set of rules. Evidently, memoirs have the wisdom of hindsight; they are generally written after the immigrants are acculturated to their new environment and more importantly, they become totally fluent in English.  Humor helps diffuse the fear and tension inherent in first encounters with a culture not always well understood. By invoking laughter, the author engenders empathy in the reader and helps us all to see the world through immigrant glasses. When we laugh with someone, it is harder to fear or hate that person and their communities.


William Saroyan, My Name is Aram. Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935 and subsequent editions. Read in entirety, if possible. Assignments will use only Chapter Three: “The Pomegranate Trees”  (pp. 35-55 in the 1940 edition).

Firoozeh Dumas, Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America. Random House, 2003. Read in entirety, if possible. Assignments will use only Chapters Three and Five: “In the Gutter,” pp. 13-16; “America, Land of the Free,” pp. 74-81.

Handout #1: Armenian Immigration to America

Handout #2: Iranian Immigration to America


  1. Students will be able to locate the territory of the former Ottoman Empire and Iran on the map.
  2. Students will be able to relate the specific experience of characters in memoirs to the broader experience of immigrants and their descendants.
  3. Students will expand their reading repertoire to include immigrant fiction and memoir.
  4. Students will be able to describe and analyze the role of humor in literature.
  5. Students will be able to write a humorous memoir, using the immigrant examples given as a model.

California State Standards
History/Social Science
8.12.7. Identify the new sources of large-scale immigration and the contributions of immigrants to the building of cities and the economy; explain the ways in which new social and economic patterns encouraged assimilation of newcomers into the mainstream amidst growing cultural diversity; and discuss the new wave of nativism.

English Language Arts: Reading
3.3.3 Compare and contrast motivations and reactions of literary characters from different historical eras confronting similar situations or conflicts.

3.3.4 Analyze the relevance of the setting (e.g., place, time, customs) to the mood, tone, and meaning of the text.

3.3.5 Identify and analyze recurring themes (e.g., good versus evil) across traditional and contemporary works.

3.3.6 Identify significant literary devices (e.g., metaphor, symbolism, dialect, irony) that define a writer’s style and use those elements to interpret the work.

3.3.7 Analyze a work of literature, showing how it reflects the heritage, traditions, attitudes, and beliefs of its author

English Language Arts: Writing
1.1.3 Support theses or conclusions with analogies, paraphrases, quotations, opinions from authorities, comparisons, and similar devices.

2.2.1 Write biographies, autobiographies, short stories, or narratives:
a. Relate a clear, coherent incident, event, or situation by using well-chosen details.
b. Reveal the significance of, or the writer’s attitude about, the subject.
c. Employ narrative and descriptive strategies (e.g., relevant dialogue, specific action, physical description, background description, comparison or contrast of characters).

2.2.2 Write responses to literature:
a. Exhibit careful reading and insight in their interpretations.
b. Connect the student’s own responses to the writer’s techniques and to specific textual references.
c. Draw supported inferences about the effects of a literary work on its audience.
d. Support judgments through references to the text, other works, other authors, or to personal knowledge.


  1. Farsi: Persian, the majority language in Iran.
  2. Memoir:  An account of an author’s personal experiences.
  3. Diaspora: The members of an ethnic or religious community living outside their ancestral homeland.
  4. Asylum seeker: Someone who asks to enter the U.S. because they fear persecution in their home country.
  5. Assimilation : for an immigrant to take on the characteristics of the dominant culture.


I. Armenian and Iranian Immigration to the United States

  • The Armenian immigrant community of Fresno, California, emigrated from the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th century. Iranians  arrived in the United States in large numbers from the 1970s to 1990s. Have students locate and label these areas on an outline map (historical and contemporary maps of the Middle East can be found online at
  • Ask the students to read Handout # 1: Armenians and Immigration to the United States.
  • Ask students to read Handout #2: Iranians and Immigration to the United States.
  • For each community, ask students to list the push and pull factors that brought immigrants to the United States, dates of the waves of immigration and demographic descriptions of the community.
  • Have students break into small groups and create Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting the data they have listed about the Iranian American and Armenian American communities.

II. Analyzing Writing

  • Ask students to read the selections from the memoirs of William Saroyan and Firoozeh Dumas.
  • These two authors focus on the particular personal consequences of cultural dislocation on their families, and reveal themes of universal human experience. Ask students to write down one or more universal themes they see reflected in each of the three chapters assigned.
  • Foreshadowing: In the two selections “The Pomegranate Trees” and “Bowling for Dollars,” it is clear early on that the protagonist is not going to achieve his aim. Ask students to write down specific lines from the text that show this. Then ask students to discuss:
  • Why do you think both authors think early in the story that their plan will actually work out?
  • If the tension is not about whether the trees will thrive and Uncle Melik will get rich, or whether Kazem will win on Bowling for Dollars, what is the point of the story?

III. Food, Identity and the American Dream

  • Ask students to imagine how immigrants try to create a space for themselves in a new country. Have them think about two opposing pressures:
    • The pressure to assimilate; that is, to understand, adapt to and eventually become part of the dominant culture, and
    • The countervailing pressure to preserve the community and culture of their ancestors and/or home country or as a marker of identity and as a social and psychological buttress against feelings of alienation and dislocation.
  • In “The Pomegranate Trees,” Uncle Melik tries to solve this tension. How would his pomegranate trees do this? Why doesn’t his plan succeed?
  • Food is an essential component of the immigrant experience, both in accepting the majority culture and in preserving the heritage culture (as with Uncle Melik’s pomegranate and other fruit trees). In “America, Land of the Free,” Firoozeh’s relatives all come together at Thanksgiving, preparing both Iranian food and American food. Have students point out examples in the text showing how the characters feel about both the food of their heritage (complex, difficult and time-consuming to make, sophisticated, flavorful, community, hospitality, etc.) and American food (say they don’t like it but eat it all, love convenience of packaged foods, free samples, love a bargain, etc.).
  • Ask students to think about what food means in their own families. Are there connections to a heritage culture? When does your family eat “heritage” foods, and when do they eat “mainstream” foods? Ask students to share examples from their own families about particularly important dishes and their emotional associations.
  • The contrast between a comical twist on the American Dream—the get-rich-quick scheme—and the tougher economic realities for new immigrants to America is part of the humor of these two pieces. Part of the humor is that the immigrant here is never totally victimized. Ask students to argue for one of the following positions: Do you think these new Americans are easy “marks” for salesmen and hucksters? Or do you think that the immigrant values of frugality turn the tables on the salesman?

IV. Memoir Writing
For homework, have students think about a time when they or a family member either had a brilliant plan that in retrospect was doomed to failure, or when they misunderstood some aspect of another culture with comic consequences. Have them write a short humorous memoir telling the story.

Handout #1
Armenians and Immigration to the United States

Today, there are more Armenians living in diaspora than in the Republic of Armenia. Within the diaspora community in the United States, Armenian Americans are notable by their affluence and prominent political presence, particularly in matters related to U.S. foreign policy with countries in the Middle East and former Soviet Union. Armenian American communities across the United States have founded diverse religious, educational, political and social institutions, all of which help to maintain their distinct identity.

While the first Armenian to set foot in the New World was “Martin the Armenian,” who settled in Jamestown in 1618 or 1619 to raise silkworms, the first sizable group of Armenian pioneers arrived in the second half of the 19th century. Initially Armenian immigrants sought advanced education and commercial opportunities; later, jobs and freedom became more important. After the 1890s, larger numbers of Armenians, especially from villages in Anatolia (today’s Turkey), migrated as the economic and political situation in the Ottoman Empire became difficult. The Hamidean massacres (1894-1896) and eventually the genocide and deportations of 1915-1922 produced a massive wave of refugees and survivors to the United States. The second major influx of Armenians to the United States was a consequence of political turmoil in the latter part of the 20th century, including the civil war in Lebanon in 1975, the Iranian revolution in 1978-1979 and the collapse of the Soviet system after 1988. The repeal of the United States’ discriminatory “quota” laws in 1965 opened the doors to these later newcomers.

There was a strong American missionary movement in the Middle East in the 19th century, which set up schools and missions throughout the region. Contact with these American missionaries was instrumental in inspiring Armenians, especially converts to Protestantism, to emigrate to the U.S.  The pioneers settled in the New England, New York City and New Jersey, and found jobs in the factories, though a significant proportion were self-employed in the oriental carpet, photography, and grocery businesses. As more immigrants arrived, some moved westward to upstate New York, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Other Armenian immigrants found a habitat reminiscent of their homeland in Fresco, CA, where they farmed (specializing in grape vineyards), eventually carving out a niche in the raisin industry. Today, there are people of Armenian descent in almost all states in the union. However, southern California has the highest concentration of immigrants, especially from Armenia and Iran. Metropolitan New York /New Jersey is a distant second, followed by Boston.

Armenian Americans have been called a “hidden minority” because they are a small community and do not stand out dramatically from the dominant Anglo population. Given that the Armenian population in the world is small, it is understandable that their numbers in the U.S. are small as well. Moreover, when they first arrived in the Americas in the late 1800s, their identity was confusing, in particular to officials at ports of entry like Ellis Island. Though they were ethnic Armenians, they came from the Ottoman Empire (mostly from the part that is now Turkey). Armenian immigrants were labeled “Turk,” much to their frustration, since they attributed their problems to the Ottoman Turkish regime. Later, Armenians won the right to become naturalized citizens, following two important lawsuits—in re Halladjian (1909) and United States v. Cartozian (1924-25). However, when they became “white” in the census and other government classificatory systems, they became invisible in official statistics. All these factors make it very difficult to know exactly how many Armenian Americans there are. Scholars and community leaders have come up with widely varying figures, which one scholar has appropriately called “guess estimates.”

In 1980, 1990 and 2000, the Census Bureau included ancestry questions that made it possible for researchers to mine data on persons of Armenian descent. This was included in the long form, which was sent to one in twenty or 5 percent of households. The question asked: “What is this person’s ancestry or ethnic origin?” Armenians could be traced by using the response to this question. The second question, which asked for place of birth, made it possible to identify the various Armenian subgroups, such as those born in Turkey, Iran or Lebanon. Sociologist Claudia Der-Martirosian’s analysis of this new census data confirms the importance of “sub-ethnicity” among Armenian Americans. The immigration experience of each group has consequences for their English language proficiency, educational attainment and economic integration. 

Adapted from an article by Anny Bakalian
References Cited
Bakalian, Anny. 1993. Armenian Americans: From Being to Feeling Armenia. New Brunswick (NJ): Transaction Publishers.
Der-Martirosian, Claudia. 2008. “Armenians in the 1980, 1990, and 2000 U.S. Census,” Journal of the Society for the Armenian Studies, 17: 127-142.

Handout #2
Iranians and Immigration to the United States

While we hear a great deal about the recent tension between the United States and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program, we generally know much less about the Iranian American community.  In some ways, the Iranian experience is similar to the Armenian immigration experience, although it happens mostly in the latter part of the 20th century. Like Armenian Americans, Iranian Americans tend to be well educated—in fact, Iranian Americans are among the most highly educated groups in the U.S. Similarly, over half of Iran-born immigrants have a bachelor’s degree or higher degree, and their children have also had high educational attainments. Iranian Americans are wealthier than the average across all immigrant groups. They also have a very high rate of becoming naturalized American citizens.

Iranians have immigrated to the United States in two waves.  In the first wave, from the mid-1960s until the outbreak of the revolution in 1978-79, college students came to the U.S. to study. They often studied technical fields such as engineering, and were encouraged to return to Iran to meet the needs of the rapidly industrializing Iranian economy after the oil boom in the 1970s.

The Islamic revolution in Iran had negative repercussions for those who had been supporters of the Shah or who had prospered under the monarchy. Many people fled the new regime as exiles, refugees and political asylum seekers and settled primarily in the United States as well as other countries.   While these immigrants were fleeing political instability and even persecution, they were still often more educated, skilled and affluent than typical refugees and asylum seekers. In 2000, more than half of the Iranian immigrant population worked in management, professional and related occupations (compared to only 28.4% of the total foreign-born population).

While most Iranian Americans are Muslim, there are also Jewish, Baha’i, Zoroastrian and Christian (Armenian and Assyrian) communities. Iranian Americans whose families emigrated before or because of the Islamic Revolution in Iran also tend to be more secular in their orientation than most other Muslim immigrants.

The largest concentration of Iranian Americans by far is in California, where over half of Iranian Americans live. Some people even refer to parts of Los Angeles where these immigrants live as “Tehrangeles.” Other significant Iranian American populations can be found in San Francisco, New York, Washington, DC/Maryland, and Houston.

Since the hostage crisis during which students in Tehran held 53 American citizens hostage for 444 days, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, many Iranian Americans have faced anti-Iranian sentiment and discrimination. This is ironic since many of them had fled the same regime that was responsible for the hostage-taking.







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