For some reason I’ve been drawn to reading a number of memoirs recently. I’m not sure if this is just a coincidence or if it’s because I’m especially drawn to real stories of lives so different from my own. Certainly (on the surface) Zeba Talkhani’s history is very distant from my own upbringing and path in life. She grew up as a Muslim girl of Indian descent in Saudi Arabia before moving to study in India, Germany and England. Yet I came to feel such a strong sense of kinship with her over the course of reading her powerful and inspiring memoir “My Past is a Foreign Country”. I connected strongly to her sensibility in a number of ways from a small detail like her love for the wonderful film ‘Violette’ or larger issues such as how physical distance from our homelands has allowed us a broader perspective on our upbringing and cultures. But, aside from the ways I personally connected to this book, I felt an overall admiration and respect for the development of her identity as a proud feminist, Muslim and intellectual.
Talkhani describes her childhood in Jeddah and the expectations placed upon her there as a girl. From an early age she was sensitive to the fact men and women were treated differently. She naturally questioned this and other aspects of the predominantly patriarchal society but “My questioning was considered a kind of lewdness.” However, she was unwilling to fully cede to the dictation of this social order and continued to query the many written and unwritten rules governing how women were meant to conduct themselves. Of course, it’d be a simplification to present Saudi Arabia only as a place where there is an issue with sexism. Crucially, Talkhani highlights the way in which this region is in some ways more progressive in its attitudes towards women. She identifies how “The problem wasn’t so much my culture, but the universal reverence we placed on men of faith, and the reputation of men in general.” What she identifies are the power structures that are in place which reinforce the patriarchy and how this manifests in different ways throughout the world regardless of the nation or predominant religion. That’s not to excuse the cases of egregious sexism she highlights in particular places, but to point out that they spring out of common issues to do with male dominated societies.
It’s really moving the way Talkhani charts how she grows and learns as an individual. A crucial issue she struggled with in her adolescence and adult life is with hair loss. This caused many more issues for her as a young woman than it would for men – especially because of the emphasis her family and community placed upon marriage and finding a suitable husband. Her condition challenged her sense of self-worth when being judged by those around her but it’s heartening to read how she developed an inner-resolve and certainty of self: “Investing in my sense of self and divorcing it from the perceptions of others not only kept me afloat as a teenager but it protected me from making life-altering choices from a place of insecurity. I knew my value and I wasn’t going to waste my precious time enabling fragile, toxic masculinity.” This is such an inspiring message for anyone who is vulnerable to letting such judgements defeat them.
It’s interesting how throughout her life Talkhani has been part of a minority whether it was living with her Indian heritage in Saudi Arabia, as a Muslim in India and as both these things in Europe. While this naturally led her to feeling ostracised at times it also allowed her to achieve a unique perspective on the assumptions and ideologies which guided the different societies she lived in. It’s given her an insight into the way in which societies differently discriminate against people based upon their gender, faith, race or nationality. This occurs in both subtle and overt ways whether it’s meeting potential suitors or being part of a predominantly white book group, but are all related to how different groups can have parochial views about those who are different. What’s truly admirable is the way Talkhani doesn’t allow the judgement of others affect her personally because “Nothing was personal, it was just how the patriarchy worked.” She comes to this conclusion partly by drawing upon many different writers and philosophers from Sylvia Plath to Simone de Beauvoir to better inform and frame her understanding of the world. After a long challenging journey she understands that it’s only her opinion of herself that matters. She articulates this beautifully in the later parts of the book as well as sympathetically describing issues of insecurity she still wrestles with.
One of the most striking points of connection I felt with the author was when she conveys in her recollections how she’d repeatedly hide her vulnerability. At a few different points in her life she describes suppressing tears or closing down rather than expressing sadness or anger to those around her (even if people close to her recognize she’s in pain and are trying to comfort her.) It’s a pernicious sort of defence mechanism whereby feelings are internalized and it ironically blocks us off from the support of people who love us when we need them the most. Talkhani movingly describes how she learns to open up and express herself more. This adds to how this memoir demonstrates an admirable maturity. Her vital perspective contains so much wisdom and insight for anyone who has felt marginalized or been pressured to conform to the status quo.