‘So are you Muslim or are you Jewish?’
When the author of this exquisite memoir arrives in India to begin her year as a Fulbright Scholar at the Film and TV Institute of India, an officious guard refuses her entrance. Her name is “not on the list.” She persists, showing her official documents and trying to talk her way in. Though her mother is of Indian and Pakistani descent, and she bears a Muslim name – Sadia – she doesn’t exactly blend in.
“I know how alien I look,” she writes. “I am paler and taller than everyone else. And in my outdated salwar kameez [pants and tunic], I can be pegged as an outsider right away.” Finally, the guard realizes she may belong there, if simply because she doesn’t belong anywhere else. We can imagine his clipped Indian English as he says, “You are from Foreign?”
This moniker will stick as she begins the search for her family’s Jewish roots in The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home by Sadia Shepard. The memoir is a gorgeous, honest tribute to her departed maternal grandmother, Nana, whose unlikely history propels the search. Part love story, part history, part search – not only for what was lost, but for how to understand what is found – the tale also traces paths not taken by Nana.
The stories are compelling, the writing is clear, and the entire book feels like an act of love and courage. As documentary filmmaker and photographer, Shepard knows how to move through scenes, pack them with dialogue, focus on key details, and capture the juxtaposition of opposites that will fascinate us outsiders.