“The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home” by Sadia Shepard— Ancestors and History

 

Shepard, Sadia. “The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home” Penguin, 2008.

Ancestors and History

Amos Lassen

I don’t know how I missed this fascinating and intimate book and I am so happy that it was recommended to me otherwise I would never have known about it. It is the story of one woman’s search for ancient family secrets that leads to an adventure. Sadia Shepard is the daughter of a white Protestant from Colorado and a Muslim from Pakistan, who was shocked to learn that her grandmother was a descendant of the Bene Israel, a tiny Jewish community shipwrecked in Konkan, India two thousand years ago. Shepard traveled to India to put the pieces of her family’s past together and while she is on her quest for identity, she experiences religious and cultural revelations that make up her memoir.

When she was 13-year-old, Shepard asks her Muslim grandmother Rahat Siddiqi about her past and learns about her ancestors. This sets her off to eventually take three voyages of discovery in motion and these include her grandmother’s history; the story of the Bene Israel and her own self-discovery. Shepard uses her year as a Fulbright scholar to investigate her grandmother’s family tree. She learns the mysteries of Nana’s past while visiting and photographing the grand and tiny synagogues in Bombay and on the Konkan Coast.

It was Shepard’s grandmother’s dying wish that she learn about her heritage. Her grandmother, she learned, grew up among the Bene Israel, a small Jewish community in India; when she married a Muslim, left Judaism and, later, India, and adopted the name Rahat Siddiqi.

I have loved reading about the Jewish community in India ever since I first learned of its existence when I was a kid. Shepard gives us wonderful descriptions and shows us what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. We ache for the mistakes Shepard makes as an American abroad. We also learn of her inner journey in which she questions her identity and her place in the world. She had always considered herself as half-half but she learns of other parts within her as well.

Using a gentle voice of reason, Shepard writes of the need for contemplation of such issues and that there is a need for cross-cultural understanding and acceptance of those who are different. We get a unique perspective from a Boston-born child of a Protestant American father and a Muslim mother from Pakistan. Shepard shares the fears and uncertainties she felt as she traveled to India and Pakistan and ultimately, her story brings together many strands: not only the historical and cultural details, but also her deep feelings for her grandmother, her sense of wonder as she travels in India and Pakistan, her feelings for a man who befriends her, and her search to understand the meaning of home”.

 

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