Books

Sara El Sayed
Muddy People

In her debut memoir, Muddy People, Sara El Sayed records her teenage years growing up in Australia as an Egyptian–Muslim migrant. Sara’s parents, both professionals, fled Egypt’s percolating economic and political instability and moved to Queensland, where they were forced to reaccredit themselves while taking a hotchpotch of jobs to keep the family afloat.

At school, Sara’s “deep, seething hatred for a white girl” leads her to develop a precocious sixth sense for racial prejudice. But as El Sayed says in the memoir’s opening pages, “I know what people expect when they pick up this book. Stories about racism, about Islamophobia … But that’s not all this book is about. It’s about my family.”

This is true to an extent. While the main narrative focuses on the El Sayed family’s metamorphosis, through their trying experiences of adjusting to life in Australia, racism is an ever-present obstacle.

Sara’s teenage years are dominated by her navigation of conflicting hybrid worlds. Her father, Baba, a devout Muslim, dictates what’s haram (forbidden), including who and how Sara should marry. That Baba’s own marriage is failing – finally ending in divorce – is an irony not lost on El Sayed. Their conflict reaches a head when she falls in love with an Australian boy. El Sayed writes that trying to love someone outside her Muslim community “without a blueprint” is like “trying to assemble Apollo 11 with instructions that came from a NutriBullet”.

The paths to acculturation are, as El Sayed describes them, “muddy”, guarded by treacherous and hostile gatekeepers – peers who conflate “Muslim” and “terrorist”, who write school speeches à la Pauline Hanson about why Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in Australia, and who mock Sara’s appearance.

Muddy People helped me understand my own mother, who migrated to Sydney from Lebanon in the 1970s. Like my mother, El Sayed laments losing parts of her heritage – especially language, the bedrock of cultural affinity. “In Egypt, my Arabic had been fluent,” El Sayed says. “In Australia, my tongue was not cut out, but it was sanded away, gradually and painfully.”

Muddy People leaves the reader on the brink of revelation, ending when El Sayed decides to marry a non-Muslim white Australian. Perhaps these events are still unfolding, yet to gain the resonance of reflection. It’s an important portrayal of growing self-determination, as El Sayed finds her identity somewhere between the “muddy logic” of her own culture and the dominant culture of white Australia. “We are Muslim, after all,” she writes. “We are not white.”

Jack Cameron Stanton

Black Inc, 256pp, $29.99. Black Inc is a Schwartz company

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 7, 2021 as "Muddy People, Sara El Sayed".

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Reviewer: Jack Cameron Stanton