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For many of us, it is easy to find books about our native culture. Zeba Talkhani’s memoir talks about living as an outsider between cultures and countries. However, My Past is a Foreign Country goes beyond expectations of what it means to be represented, understood and discriminated against. 


Talkhani’s novel charts her experiences as an outsider during her journey around the world for education and work. Defying traditional expectations of women, Zeba Talkhani discusses what it means to grow up in a patriarchal society and only realise its problems in her teenage years. Identifying the problems of a traditional society and also the value of tradition, Talkhani analyses her family relationships and upbringing. She discusses mother-daughter relationships, the patriarchy, how her hair loss affected her perception of her own beauty and much more. 


The memoir expands across Saudi Arabia, India, Germany and the UK; all contributing to her growth as a woman. Learning to assert her own independence and push the boundaries of what would be accepted by her family, My Past is a Foreign Country is an honest reflection on how Talkhani perceives her growth. She has a unique voice with a complex understanding of what it means to be a feminist and also still appreciate tradition. 


The novel is a discussion of self-forgiveness and how Talkhani decided to go against what had already been decided for her by tradition, to make herself happy. Her persistence to say no until she was sure it was the right decision for her, is reflected in her descriptions of coming to terms with the conflict between her family’s wishes and her own. 


Although the book describes itself as a story of a Muslim woman finding herself, it goes beyond being just a cultural journey about self-acceptance. Talkhani embraced opportunities that came her way to learn about other cultures and in turn, educate others on what it means to her to be an Indian Muslim woman facing prejudice and micro-aggressions every day. 


Talkhani’s journey to self-acceptance is largely communicated through her hair loss. Offering another layer to Talkhani’s journey to self-acceptance in a prejudiced and patriarchal society, her hair loss teaches the reader the irrelevance of other’s comments on their looks. In recent discussions of body positivity, Talkhani’s journey to self-acceptance when everyone based her worth on her looks reads raw and unpacks the underlying trauma that we can bring upon ourselves when picking apart our appearances. 


We are so often put off non-fiction books that we forget that real life can create some wonderful stories outside of fiction. My Past is a Foreign Country is a perfect example of how non-fiction isn’t all how-to guides and biographies. There is more than meets the eye with non-fiction and I would recommend reading Zeba Talkhani’s memoir to those interested in reading about different cultures and how they differ. 


You can buy My Past is a Foreign Country here

Vicki Mileson

Nottingham '23

20, University of Nottingham. Third year Modern Languages student. Writing about university life, book recommendations and travel.
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