The Strangers We Became

  • Review
By – September 17, 2015

Grip­ping yet light-heart­ed, this mem­oir tells the sto­ry of Cyn­thia Kaplan Shamash’s jour­ney from child­hood in Iraq to adult­hood as a prac­tic­ing den­tist in New York.

Shamash infus­es her tale with emo­tion but nev­er los­es the facts of her expe­ri­ence in the whirl­wind of her flight to Turkey, reunion with fam­i­ly in Israel, iso­la­tion in the Nether­lands, edu­ca­tion in Eng­land, and final­ly the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a new begin­ning in New York. The anec­dotes from Shamash’s Iraqi child­hood are unique and touch­ing, but the good can­not out­weigh the dis­crim­i­na­tion and hos­til­i­ty toward Jews that even­tu­al­ly touch her fam­i­ly through her father’s forced res­ig­na­tion from his job with a major account­ing firm and the family’s strug­gle to leave Iraq that at one point lands them all in jail. Final­ly free, out­side Iraq, such nos­tal­gia is insuf­fi­cient to sus­tain them as a fam­i­ly, and — as the title sug­gests — they become strangers in a new land. Shamash strug­gles with iso­la­tion and con­fu­sion in school; her par­ents con­tend with case­work­ers who help yet judge their dif­fer­ences and lan­guage bar­ri­ers that block pos­si­bil­i­ties for advance­ment in a cul­tur­al­ly lib­er­at­ed West­ern society.

Shamash’s writ­ing beau­ti­ful­ly com­mu­ni­cates the con­fu­sion, imag­i­na­tion, and resilience that she expe­ri­enced as a child from the trau­ma, dis­place­ment, and pos­si­bil­i­ty of immi­gra­tion, all caused by anti-Semi­tism. She weaves her sto­ry so well that the read­er tru­ly feels what the author has lived. It is only at the end of her tale that one must reck­on with the impacts of pover­ty and insta­bil­i­ty on Shamash and her fam­i­ly and acknowl­edge the courage they all have shown in build­ing new lives in unfa­mil­iar places. The sto­ry moves quick­ly, so that there is much for a read­er to absorb — per­haps too much — but then Shamash holds the events and the emo­tion so expert­ly in sync that the pow­er of the sto­ry is enhanced rather than less­ened by the fast pace.

For its writ­ing, its coher­ence, and its ener­gy, this mem­oir is worth read­ing. Shamash achieves the right bal­ance in tone, so seri­ous top­ics and opti­mism coex­ist. There are moments of grav­i­ty but also enter­tain­ment in this uni­ver­sal tale of immi­gra­tion and redemp­tion. Read­ers will enjoy this exceed­ing­ly well-writ­ten sto­ry, and might also begin to empathize with immi­grants among us, who have, like Shamash and her fam­i­ly, become strangers in their new homes.

Rachel Sara Rosen­thal is an envi­ron­men­tal attor­ney in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Orig­i­nal­ly from Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na, she grad­u­at­ed from Duke Uni­ver­si­ty in 2003 and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law in 2006.

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