Zeba Talkhani knew she was different from a young age. Growing up in a Muslim family in India and Saudi Arabia, she struggled in the patriarchal expectations of her culture and the rigid standards for women. In My Past is a Foreign Country, she recounts her life of slowing removing herself from these patriarchal structures and finding her own path for herself as a Muslim feminist. The black cloud hanging over this memoir, however, is how much Talkhani’s privilege paved her way for her self-discovery.
Talkhani’s memoir is familiar territory–of a sprawling family, of a repressive culture, of breaking out and finding herself somewhere else. I’m not saying it’s a bad memoir, but it is one I struggled to get through because there just didn’t feel like much of a hook here. It felt like I had read a lot of takes on this already, and I felt myself skimming by the end. Talkhani’s narration is smooth and inviting, but the narrative just fell flat.
Talkhani is Indian, and the memoir does a lot to explore the anti-South Asian bias present in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East as a whole. The incidents Talkhani describes are quite alarming, and intriguing, but she never really does much with them. She doesn’t do much to challenge or affirm any reader’s previous notions of life in Saudi Arabia, other than describe sexism within her own family. I wish I had learned more about Talkhani’s education–especially when, in later chapters, she mentions having never learned about the Holocaust or the slave trade until she was in university, and how many of her female friends from Saudi Arabia had been encouraged to pursue challenging degrees like engineering, only to never work a day in their lives because they were married off right after graduation. These throwaway details revealed the potential that this memoir could have reached.
Talkhani discovered feminism while spending a semester abroad in Germany (where she casually mentions her parents sending her a new credit card when she misplaced her cash). She then traveled to England for an MA, again casually explaining away studying on her parents’ dime, to find a future outside of Saudi Arabia. This all feels very empowering, especially as she expands her social circle, learns more about other faiths, and proudly comes into her own identifying as a Muslim feminist and taking her future into her own hands to remain in the UK rather than return to Saudi Arabia. Some of this development falls a bit flat at the end when she gets married, and by her own admission, falls back into the ‘patriarchal trap’ of the society she tried her best to leave. She seems perfectly happy now, but I can’t quite tell how she’s grown.
Much of the memoir focuses on Talkhani’s struggle with hair loss, which she started experiencing at a young age and underwent all sorts of treatments for. This was a compelling angle, especially exploring how this intersected with her religious obligations. But again, it fizzled out and didn’t quite result in any serious self-actualization. I think there’s a lot of potential here, and I’m not unopposed to reading more of Talkhani’s work–I think she just needs to grow a bit more as a writer and focus on telling an aspect of her story rather than squeezing a whole life into 150 pages.
MY PAST IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY on Amazon.co.uk:
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