Tangled family tree

A grandmother's secret sparks memoir

| July 16, 2009

When Sadia Shepard left New York in the fall of 2001, just days after the attack on the World Trade Center, she journeyed to India on a Fulbright Scholarship. Her project was to focus on the Bene Israel, a tiny Jewish community whose members believe they are one of the lost tribes of Israel, having been shipwrecked in India 2,000 years ago. Though certainly a cultural mission, even an anthropological one, Shepard's trek was also a personal one.

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Growing up in a suburb of Boston, Shepard and her younger brother were raised by their white Protestant father from Colorado, their Muslim mother from Pakistan and their grandmother, Rahat Siddiqi, who lived with the family. One afternoon, when Shepard was 13, she discovered her grandmother's secret: that Rahat Siddiqi had been born Rachel Jacobs and was a descendent of the Bene Israel—making Shepard herself part-Christian, part-Muslim and part-Jewish.

At 16, Rahat fell in love with and secretly married Ali Siddiqi, a Muslim 10 years her senior who already had two other wives and several children. For 10 years, until she became pregnant with Shepard's mother, Rahat kept the marriage secret. In 1947, after the partition of India (when the British Indian territories became India and Pakistan, respectively), Rahat left her beloved home in Bombay (built for her by Ali and called "Rahat Villa") and followed her husband to Pakistan, to live in a home shared among Ali, his three wives and all their children.

Not long before Rahat's death in 2000, Sadia Shepard promised her grandmother she would go to India to learn about her ancestors. The result of Shepard's nearly two-year stay in Mumbai is an intricate, poetically written memoir.

"I am here," writes Shepard, "as an amateur detective on that most American of journeys: a search for the roots of my own particular tree...What I know are fragments. I am here to weave them together, to create a new story, a story uniquely my own."

Which is exactly what she does.

The Girl from Foreign tells the story of Shepard's grandmother and, to a broader extent, the history of the Bene Israel. (Shepard also made a documentary called In Search of the Bene Israel that chronicles the history of Jews in Mumbai.) Primarily, though, it is Shepard's own story that prevails here, part-travelogue and part-meditation on what it means to have grown up in a multi-ethnic, interfaith home.

In one instance, when trying to enter through a gate at The Film and TV Institute of India, a guard stops Shepard and questions her since he has no record of her name. "You are from Foreign?" he asks. Shepard nods. The guard's question supplies the memoir's title and embodies a deeper reality. In truth, Shepard is not traditionally American, nor is she entirely Indian, nor, for that matter, is she necessarily Pakistani. Therefore, yes, she is the girl "from Foreign."

At no time was that sense of foreign-ness more alienating than in her first months in India. After an upsetting encounter with a street vendor who, much to Shepard's horror, mimed the attack on the World Trade Center while pointing at Shepard and saying "Amreeka! Amreeka!" Shepard wondered why her mother had never taught her Hindi or "the hand gestures, the head toss, the way to walk in leather sandals, picking up the sole of the shoe a little bit each time with a small squeeze of your first and second toes." The answer was that her mother never wanted Shepard to feel different from the other children. "But of course I am different," Shepard writes. "I am different at home and I am different here. At home it is unusual, interesting to be different, a cultural curiosity. Here it is merely uncomfortable."

Shepard's story is part of an ever-growing multicultural literature, one that seems to consistently explore the roots of "home," whether that be the home of one's ancestors, one's parents or wherever one might decide to make home. Our concept of personal history is so often shaped by our place of birth, our roots, our religion. Shepard's personal history supplied multiple options, but no definitive answers, and her journey is an attempt to explore the most mysterious part of her cultural inheritance—her grandmother's Judaism.

By the memoir's close, Shepard has found a way to comfortably navigate throughout India. In fact, she's grown so comfortable that part of her longs to stay. Having unraveled much of her grandmother's past and chronicling the lives of the few remaining members of the Bene Israel community (most have emigrated to Israel), Shepard has, ostensibly, fulfilled her Fulbright requirements. Yet, there is a feeling of reluctance in the closing pages of Girl from Foreign, that the personal story Shepard set out to create at the beginning of her journey is best left unfinished.

For the sake of her audience, Shepard might want to keep writing that story. If it's anything like this memoir, we'll want to read it.

Sadia Shepard reads from The Girl from Foreign at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, July 21, at 7 PM. Free.

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