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The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Homeby Sadia Shepard
Synopses & Reviews
In this beautifully crafted memoir, a young half-Muslim, half-Christian woman travels to India to connect with a tiny Jewish community and unlock her famil‛s secret history.
Sadia Shepard grew up in a joyful, chaotic home just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, where cultures intertwined, her father a white Protestant from Colorado and her mother a Muslim from Pakistan. Her childhood was spent in a house full of stories and storytellers, where the customs and religions of both of her parents were celebrated and cherished with equal enthusiasm. But Sadi‛s cultural legacy grew more complex when she discovered that there was one story she had never been told. Her beloved maternal grandmother was not a Muslim like the rest of her Pakistani family, but in fact had begun her life as Rachel Jacobs, a descendant of the Bene Israel, a tiny Jewish community whose members believe that they are one of the lost tribes of Israel, shipwrecked in India two thousand years ago. This new knowledge complicated Sadia's cultural inheritance even further, intimately linking her to the faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and to the customs of India, the United States, and Pakistan.
At her grandmother's deathbed, Sadia makes a promise to begin the process of filling in the missing pieces of her family's fractured mosaic. With the help of a Fulbright Scholarship and armed with a suitcase of camera equipment, she arrives in Bombay, where she finds herself struggling to document a community in transition. Her search to connect with the Bene Israel community and understand its unique traditions brings her into contact with a cast of remarkable characters, tests her sense of self, and forces her to examine what it means to lose and seek on‛s place, on‛s homelands, and on‛s history. In the process, she unearths long-lost family secrets, confronts her fears of failure, and finds love in places that surprise her. Sadia beautifully weaves together the story of her grandparent‛ secret marriage and the haunting legacy of Partition with an evocative account of a little-known Jewish community and a young woma‛s search for self. The Girl from Foreign is her poetic and touching attempt to reconcile with her family's past and help determine her future. When offered the choice, will she be able to choose among the religious and cultural identities that have shaped her? It is an unforgettable story of family secrets, buried identities, lost histories, forbidden love, and, above all, eye-opening self- discovery.
"'Who is Rachel Jacobs?' the 13-year-old asks her Muslim grandmother Rahat Siddiqi; 'that,' Nana tells her, 'was my name before I was married.' Thus does a grandmother's stunning reply and a granddaughter's promise 'to learn about her ancestors' set Shepard's three voyages of discovery in motion: her grandmother's history; the story of the Bene Israel (one of the lost tribes of Israel that, having sailed from Israel two millennia ago, crashed on the Konkan coast in India; and her own self-discovery (her mother was Muslim, her father Christian, and her grand mother Jewish). Shepard balances all three journeys with dexterity as she spends her Fulbright year, with an old hand-drawn map and her grandmother's family tree, unraveling the mysteries of Nana's past while visiting and photographing the grand and minuscule synagogues in Bombay and on the Konkan Coast. A filmmaker, Shepard writes with a lively sense of pacing (her year proceeds chronologically, interspersed with well-placed flashbacks) and a keen sense of character (getting to know her friend, escort and fellow filmmaker Rekhev as gradually as she does, or capturing the Muslim baker who makes the 'only authentic challah in Bombay' in a few strokes). Shepard's story is entertaining and instructive, inquiring and visionary." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Besides being a personal memoir and a portrait of a family that includes the world's three major monotheistic religions, "The Girl From Foreign" is a meditation on how our individual memories inevitably slip away, either into oblivion or into that dull collective consciousness we call history. The main, organizing event here occurred in 1947, when India at once gained its independence... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) from Britain and split into two countries — Hindus remaining primarily in the main body of the subcontinent; Muslims peeling off to the west and east, to form Pakistan. (Decades later, East Pakistan became Bangladesh.) The average American, if there is such a thing, might remember 1947 as part of the beginning of the Cold War. But Indians have the nerve to be fascinated by the events that occurred in their own country that year, the public history that overlaps, vividly, with their personal memories. Little Sadia Shepard and her younger brother, Cassim, grew up first in Denver, then Chestnut Hill, Mass., in what she considered to be a wonderful and normal life with three terrific adults: her American dad, a tall, rangy, white Protestant; her beautiful Muslim mother, who was born and raised in an affluent home in Karachi, the first capital of Pakistan; and her sweet maternal grandmother, who raised the kids and kept the house while the adult couple ran an architectural firm. This grandma has a set of slightly dissonant memories: "A very long time ago," she tells young Sadia, "your ancestors left Israel in a ship ... and they were shipwrecked, in India. They were Jews, but they settled in India. In the shipwreck they lost their Torahs, and they forgot their religion." Sadia's nana had spent her early adult years as a Muslim wife in a beautiful beach house in Bombay. But she was neither Hindu nor Muslim. Her prayers, years later, are Muslim, but in her childhood she was a Jew. These tales told by Sadia's grandmother change over the years and seem highly edited for the children. Yes, she was a member of a group called Bene Israel. As a young adult she worked as a nurse in a Bombay hospital, while being secretly married — or perhaps not — to a handsome Muslim. But then, in 1947, when partition came, she was forced to move with her wealthy husband to Karachi. She was in for a rude shock. "When Nana left Bombay for Karachi after the Partition of India," the author tells us, "she left behind her birthplace and community for a new life; she became the third wife in a joint Muslim household, all three families under one roof." But to Sadia, the details of her nana's Jewish youth remained tantalizingly obscure. What had really become of that legendarily small group of Jews who had set out from Israel 2,000 years earlier, who still evidently believed that they were one of the lost tribes of Israel, and who had settled so long before on the Konkan coast of Western India? According to Nana's stories, they barely remembered their religion, "abstaining from eating fish without fins and scales, and circumcising their male infants on the eighth day after their birth," but knowing only one prayer. It wasn't until the early 19th century that Christian missionaries passing through clued them in on the existence of their own Old Testament. Sadia's grandmother's childhood religion remained exasperatingly obscure, hard to understand, in stark contrast to her father's straight-up Christianity and her mother's Islam. The American household cheerfully accommodated these disparate beliefs by celebrating every possible religious holiday without getting too serious about any one religion. Then Nana dies. Sadia obsesses about this lost life, the lost memories. She gets a grant to go on a fact-finding trip to Bombay, Karachi and the Konkan coast. Thanks to genes from her rangy dad, she's maybe a foot taller than everyone else, a "girl from foreign," a bit of a freak. Many of the Indians she meets are less than hospitable. The lost settlements of the Bene Israel are very hard to find. Sadia aches with loneliness. But she sticks it out; she runs down every clue. She visits the home of her nana's Muslim relatives: They've spitefully gutted her old apartment, possibly because she was Jewish, possibly because she was the youngest and prettiest of the wives, possibly because they just needed the wiring, plumbing and furniture. Sadie will never find out, but her mother, safely in America, isn't surprised. At every step Sadia is pestered by religious zealots to choose a faith — and a nationality while she's at it. But she steadfastly refuses, choosing to keep her options open. But what a rich tapestry of theology, art, emotions and forgotten lore she's uncovered! As our personal memories turn into history, all too often the colors are leached from them. But Sadia Shepard tints the colors back in. We see lavish Muslim weddings, Jewish villages hidden in Indian jungles, earnest lovers reaching across religion and culture. The author's laudable accomplishment is that she yanks her grandmother's story from the coffin of forgetfulness and breathes it back into life. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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In this beautifully crafted memoir, a young Muslim-Christian woman travels to an insular Jewish community in India to unlock her family's secret history.
A search for shipwrecked ancestors, forgotten histories, and a sense of home
Fascinating and intimate , The Girl from Foreign is one woman's search for ancient family secrets that leads to an adventure in far-off lands. Sadia Shepard, the daughter of a white Protestant from Colorado and a Muslim from Pakistan, was shocked to discover that her grandmother was a descendant of the Bene Israel, a tiny Jewish community shipwrecked in India two thousand years ago. After traveling to India to put the pieces of her family's past together, her quest for identity unlocks a myriad of profound religious and cultural revelations that Shepard gracefully weaves into this touching, eye-opening memoir.
About the Author
Sadia Shepard is a documentary filmmaker, photographer, and writer whose work on the Bene Israel community of Western India includes a photo-essay and documentary film, made possible by a Fulbright Scholarship and grants from the Jeremiah Kaplan Foundation and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. She is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the graduate program in documentary film and video at Stanford University. This is her first book.
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