My Past Is a Foreign Country by Zeba Talkhani (Sceptre, 2019): a moving and compassionate memoir with an emphasis on a daughter’s difficult relationship with her mother. One of a series of my occasional reviews of recent biographies and memoirs with Cambridge connections.
As a young girl growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, Zeba Talkhani was fascinated by her elegant, rather mysterious mother. “I was obsessed by Mama’s every move and watched her like a hawk,” she recalls. As a result, her mother became ever more secretive around her small child, warning friends of her daughter’s ‘antenna’ and speaking to Talkhani’s father in a language from their native south-west India. But somehow their bright, curious daughter was always able to understand them.
Talkhani’s father worked for a large company in Jeddah and spent much of his time travelling. Living so far from their Indian relatives meant connections to their fellow expatriates were important. Large weekend gatherings were the norm, and it was her mother’s job to provide a generous array of food for twenty or more families. “Looking back, it feels as though Mama spent her twenties and thirties cooking for people she did not know,” Talkhani recalls. On one occasion she witnessed a kitchen accident and her mother “wailing and withering” in pain from her bloody injury. A few hours later, ‘Mama’ seemed a different woman: beautifully dressed, smiling graciously and presiding over the party as if nothing had happened. “It was the first of many times that I was in absolute awe of her ability to perform the role that society had forced upon her,” Talkhani observes. “I still feel a sharp sting when I ask myself why the party was not cancelled that day.”
Keeping up appearances was important to her mother, and there were countless unspoken tensions living under Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal laws. Both at home and at school Talkhani was taught that “bad things happen to girls who are not “good Muslims”‘. As she grew into a teenager and questioned why women were treated as they were, she was often scolded by her mother, whose natural protectiveness often shaded into bitter reproach. “I felt that Mama held my joyful hope against me,” Talkhani writes. “I wanted a mother who could see me for who I was and not worry about how I would be perceived by our society”. Their relationship became more strained when, at the age of fourteen, Talkhani began to suffer from hair loss, and her mother feared this would mean the end of her daughter’s marriage prospects.
The memoir charts Talkhani’s progress into adulthood as she moves away from the family home and the restrictions of this society. She began her studies at Manipal University in southern India, where she found greater freedom and awareness of wider political issues. Under Saudi Arabia’s strict censorship laws of the 1990s and 2000s she had no access to modern culture, and an extremely limited overview of history: she had never heard of the Holocaust or the impact of slavery in America. (In this, her book is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, another excellent recent memoir with a Cambridge connection.) Talkhani’s university education involved more than attending classes and reading set texts. She became absorbed in magazines, going to the cinema, watching popular American TV series and discussing ideas with friends. But it was the university’s well stocked library that made her see the world, and herself, through fresh eyes. “I realised that I did not subscribe to the tyrannical, homophobic and misogynist Islam I was exposed to in my early years,” she notes. “I was only just embarking on my feminist journey and I was keen to marry Islam with it.”
A central part of Talkhani’s feminist education was understanding why her mother behaved in the way that she did. In Manipal, reading Sylvia Plath for the first time helped her to understand “the conflicted reality” of motherhood: “I saw my mother in her words.” She studied in Germany, then in 2012 followed in Plath’s footsteps to Cambridge, where she began studying for an MA in Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University, the “tiny university on the wrong side of Parker’s Piece” as she puts it. Although at first it seemed a cosmopolitan city, it soon became apparent that her fellow students struggled with the idea that she could be both Muslim and feminist. With her mother increasingly fretting about her marriageability, where did she fit in? Then, in a Cambridge café one day, Talkhani overheard an older woman resembling “a ghost from my future” blaming all her failures in life on her mother. At the age of twenty-three she decided that she must take control of her own life.
This original and insightful memoir is a testament to a young writer’s experiences of gaining a meaningful education for herself in very different places. It is beautifully paced, with a touching freshness and honesty that makes you want to keep reading. Like the inquisitive child she once was, Talkhani is able to tune into things that are both said and unsaid around her, and as she grows up, gradually works out her own story. Her growing self-awareness brings her closer to her mother, and the two women begin to trust one another: “It felt like we were fighting our demons together.”
© Ann Kennedy Smith, 26 August 2019, all rights reserved