Kazem grew up in the town of Ahwaz. His father, Javad, was a wheat farmer. Growing up, Kazem loved sneaking into outdoor movies—by climbing a high wall, he could see the movie for free. One night, Kazem and his brother Muhammad climbed onto a wall to watch a film. A police officer shouted at them, and they jumped down and ran away. Kazem fell on a pile of bricks, leaving a permanent scar on his shin.
Clearly, Kazem remembers his childhood in Iran fondly, but for the most part Firoozeh’s memoir isn’t about life in Iran; rather, it’s about Kazem and Firoozeh’s experiences in the U.S.
When Kazem was twenty-three years old, he applied for a Fulbright scholarship. His friends told him that Fulbrights were for wealthy Americans, not Iranians, but he finished the Fulbright exam ranked first in Iran. Kazem later accepted a grant to study engineering at Texas A&M. However, the acceptance letter arrived so late that by the time Kazem found out he’d be moving to the United States, the orientation program had already begun. Kazem frantically went to Tehran to obtain a passport; he ended up staying for weeks, trying to get the right paperwork. He eventually flew to Texas, thirty-five days late for orientation.
The Fulbright scholarship program was originally developed after World War Two to foster peace and cooperation between America and other countries (and, furthermore, to encourage the smartest people from around the world to live in America)—so the claim that Fulbright grants are for “wealthy Americans” isn’t entirely true.
Kazem spent the year studying hard. His roommate was an antisocial student who was expelled from the program for drinking. Kazem began to feel lonely. He learned that he could transfer to another school, but didn’t want to ask for the transfer explicitly. Instead, he wrote a letter to the Fulbright office, explaining his loneliness. Instead of transferring Kazem to another school, the office arranged for him to meet with an American hostess. The hostess took him to art museums and other places, and he eventually decided that he enjoyed sitting in his room after all.
Kazem doesn’t develop a rich understanding of American society because he prioritizes studying—and even when the hostess tries to show him American culture, he’s uncomfortable. Again, this could be considered pretty depressing (and perhaps it was for Kazem at the time), but Firoozeh softens the episode with humor.
One of Kazem’s professors invited him to join him in visiting an “old acquaintance” in Princeton, New Jersey for Easter break. The acquaintance turned out to be Albert Einstein. Einstein asked Kazem to tell him about his Fulbright grant, and Kazem, lonely and excited to meet such an impressive man, proceeded to lecture Einstein for far too long on the history of the Fulbright. Einstein smiled and said, “I know about your famous carpets and your beautiful cats.”
In many ways, Einstein’s story isn’t so different from Kazem’s: like Kazem, Einstein immigrated to America and eventually became an American citizen. While Einstein is clearly a hero to Kazem, Einstein seems to be guilty of the same innocent cluelessness about Iran that Firoozeh depicts throughout the book, hence his remark.
Kazem finished his studies in Texas a confident, educated man. In Iran was grateful to be back with his beloved family, but he’d developed ambitions to return to America and give his own children the same opportunities he’d had.
Kazem’s time in America leaves a huge impression on him: he’s lonely, but he also recognizes that America (as he knows it) rewards hard work. This, one could certainly argue, is one of the purposes of the Fulbright program: to attract bright people from other countries and encourage them to lend their services to America.