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 familys 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 Sadias 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 ones place, ones homelands, and ones 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 grandparents secret marriage and the haunting legacy of Partition with an evocative account of a little-known Jewish community and a young womans 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.)
A beautifully written memoir about finding home, from an author who is multiply exiled. Told from the heart, The Girl from Foreign
performs the unique feat of making the foreign feel familiar.
Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
The Girl From Foreign unfolds like a series of miniatures or dreamsa synagogue in the heart of Bombay so bereft of Jews that its caretaker is a Muslim, a sixteen year old Pakistani girl welcomed to Kansas by a marching band playing "For She's a Jolly Good Fellow," secrets from another generation which have migrated from a Jewish to a Muslim household, locked and forgotten until a key arrives from America to free them. Intricately plotted, deeply moving, and beautifully written, the story of Sadia Shepard's journey into her grandmother's past proves that faith and memory and love will always be inextricable.
Deborah Baker, author of A Blue Hand: The Beats in India
"A deeply moving journey across boundaries that most others find uncrossable, and into depths of human meaning that are rarely plumbed. An important and timely book."
James Carroll, author of Constantine's Sword: The Church and the JewsA History
"Sadia Shepard writes with compassion and humility about her journey to discover the disparate forcescultural, ethnic, and religiousthat make up her identity. On the way, we learn about the diversity and plurality of a rapidly transforming Indian subcontinent; we discover the love story that brought Sadias grandparents together, and finally, we are reminded, though the intimate and touching portrait of her family, of all of the mysteries that shape who we are."
Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age
"Part travelogue, part elegy to a beloved grandmother, and part love affair, The Girl From Foreign is a remarkable, moving and refreshingly honest account of a young woman's search for roots, for belief and a place to belong."
Alice Greenway, author of White Ghost Girls
From Boston to Karachi to the Jewish community of Bombay and its remnants on the Konkan coast, Sadia Shepard takes us on an elegant journey of both self- discovery and tribute to her Bene Israel grandmother, Rachel Jacobs, her beloved Nana. The Girl from Foreign is a beautiful story about the enigma of belonging and the complexities we all carry within us.
Devyani Saltzman, author of Shooting Water
" Elegantly crafted . . . [Shepard's] writing is vivid and her meditations on heritage and grief are moving."
-The New Yorker
" A meditation on how our individual memories inevitably slip away . . . A rich tapestry of theology, art, emotions and forgotten lore."
-The Washington Post
" Exquisite . . . Part love story, part history, part search-not only for what was lost, but for how to understand what is found . . . An act of love and courage."
-The Christian Science Monitor
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.