Things said and left unsaid: Muddy People is a charming memoir of a child out of place

Things said and left unsaid: Muddy People is a charming memoir of a child out of place
8 min read
21 September, 2022
Book Club: Growing up feeling out of place is a daunting prospect, particularly if you're from an immigrant family. Sara El Sayed's Muddy People is a funny, uplifting memoir about her navigation of a new culture whilst trying to hold onto her own.
Muddy People is a hilarious, heart-warming memoir of growing up and becoming oneself in an Egyptian Muslim family [Greystone Books]

The ways in which we communicate – and miscommunicate – as Arab families is the crux of Egyptian Australian writer Sara El Sayed’s memoir Muddy People: A Muslim Coming of Age, which was published in Australia last year, and was recently released in the UK. 

It is also the inspiration behind the title Muddy People which examines the blurring of lines when it comes to navigating family rules as an Egyptian immigrant to Australia and when it comes to one’s identity as a third culture kid.

Early on in her memoir, Sara relates a childhood memory from her early years in Cairo, in which she has gone to the park with her father after a spell of rain.

"Sara's memoir is a chronological piece of creative non-fiction that charts her family’s move to Australia in the early Noughties in a post-9/11 world, and her formative years as a child, teen, and young woman in a dominantly white society"

In her head, she wanted to tell her father that it is wet and muddy, but instead, she comes out with “sunny, sunny!”

Talking to The New Arab, Sara explains how this comes to symbolise the ways in which her parents, in particular her father, sometimes said things they didn’t mean due to an inability to articulate in English what they actually intended to say, and how important it was to her to explore the ways in which language can pose barriers to communication and the impact it has on family relationships.

“The idea of saying something you don’t mean, or doing something you don’t say, [leads to] that confusion in communication. And that really characterises a lot of communications or interactions we have in my family, in particular with my father,” she begins. 

“A lot of it is him not being able to communicate what he wants to in Australia in the context of working with others, but also between him and me when we are communicating our family expectations as linked to our culture and our faith, for example as a kid or teenager asking, 'why do we do this?' and being told, 'well that’s just the way it is.' There’s no clear explanation as to why, it’s always 'just do as we say.' All of those things that are unclear and that leave things open to interpretation that leads to conflict further down the line.”

Sara’s memoir is a chronological piece of creative non-fiction that charts her family’s move to Australia in the early Noughties in a post-9/11 world, and her formative years as a child, teen, and young woman in a dominantly white society that can be both cruel and unwelcoming to her as the child of Egyptian immigrants.

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When she starts school, at first the microaggressions she faces from other children appear to be unintended or just a bit of teasing.

But as she gets older, the racism becomes more blatant, a key example being when her best friend Carly gives a class talk on why Muslims should not be allowed in Australia, and their teacher does nothing to stop her.

“People’s perceptions of Egyptians are those really naïve perceptions that are linked to Ancient Egypt, and a lot of the experience or the stereotypes and cheekiness when kids would come up to you and make those sorts of associations with the Ancient history of Egypt,” says Sara.

“But growing up, it moved away from that sort of teasing to more so being related to my faith and the cultural background of being Muslim as well as being Arab. It comes out very young and it is definitely a big thing in Australia.”

"A beautiful, funny, and touching reflection on family, the mishaps that happen as you adjust to a new culture, and on trying to fit in, Muddy People is a memoir by a young Arab woman that will warm your heart"

The book has been cleverly split into vignettes that switch between one of her parents’ rules, to chapters that are dedicated to her Mama and Baba.

Sara explains that the intention behind this was to create space that was devoted to the experiences of her mother and father as individuals and to show how important her relationship with each parent was.

From the very beginning of her memoir, we learn about her father’s journey with cancer, something that Sara says was integral to her story and not something that she wanted to include in only one chapter.

“Conversations with my father and mother informed that narrator’s perspective so I thought it was worth weaving it in throughout, and I think that giving his experience of his cancer a little bit more space was definitely worthwhile because I didn’t really want to leave it to the very end of the story; it was not about that reveal of 'he’s sick,' it’s about the relationship I had with him, the relationship I had with my mother, and I really wanted that to be at the forefront of the story.”

Sara El Sayed in portrait
Sara El Sayed in portrait [photo credit: Sara El Sayed]

The title of each chapter is a rule – rules that are considered quite standard in many Arab and Muslim families – such as, “good girls don’t wear bikinis,” “no moving out without a husband,” and “it is haram to waste food.”

Sara explores the ways in which she navigated those rules in a comical manner which shows she harbours no resentment towards her parents, nor even a particular longing to break them.

For Sara, it was about picking her battles and maintaining a balance between respecting her parents’ wishes and assimilating into Australian society.

“I definitely don’t think I was a rule breaker!” she laughs. “It’s funny because I did structure the book around the rules, but rarely do I break a rule of my parents. Sometimes it’s an almost, or a question as to why, and I think that’s something that a lot of Arab Muslim women experience, that it’s really difficult to rebel. We might rebel in our own ways, sometimes it’s internally, sometimes it’s away from our parents in the shadows and out of their sight, sometimes it is just in our own way of picking our battles and fighting where we choose to move and take our lives," she adds. 

“I didn’t want this to be that story of 'here’s my mean family and this is what they wanted to make me do and here’s me running away from that' – I wanted this to be about my experience and the rules we had as a family, and here’s how I played within those rules.”

One of the most remarkable things about Muddy People is that Sara El Sayed wrote it in her twenties, and it is arguably one of only a few memoirs written in English by a female Egyptian writer.

“I felt the knowledge that I haven’t lived a whole life of experience, I know there are things that if I were to say that I would reflect on my life at 50 years old, at 70 years old, the story would be different. I also think there is value in younger people reflecting on their lives because even though we are young we are closer in proximity to those memories of childhood; there are still some interesting perspectives you can gain from that,” she says.

Writing openly about what is personal and about one’s family is still seen by some in the Arab community as taboo, like airing your dirty laundry in public. Despite being aware of this, Sara says it was important to write truthfully and authentically about her life.

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“It is not naïve to say that when we are honest, or when we show the flaws of our community [there are] conflicts that we come up against within our community that sometimes those on the outside use and weaponise against us, and that’s a very real thing we feel," she continues.

"So that is something we have to juggle as Arab writers and as women as well, that our stories can be used against us. I was very conscious of that but I also didn’t want that to restrict me and force me to write the story I didn’t want to write.”

A beautiful, funny, and touching reflection on family, the mishaps that happen as you adjust to a new culture, and trying to fit in, Muddy People is a memoir by a young Arab woman that will warm your heart, and which children of immigrants and third culture kids will be nodding and laughing in recognition.

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press.

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA