Muddy People: A Memoir by Sara El Sayed, Review: Engaging read

Muddy People by Sara El Sayed is an engaging and perceptively written memoir illuminating the challenges faced by Muslim girls growing up within secular society. Read my full review.

Muddy People: A Memoir Synopsis

A hilarious, heartwarming memoir of growing up and becoming yourself in an Egyptian Muslim family.

Soos is coming of age in a household with a lot of rules. No bikinis, despite the Queensland heat. No boys, unless he’s Muslim. And no life insurance, not even when her father gets cancer.

Soos is trying to balance her parents’ strict decrees with having friendships, crushes and the freedom to develop her own values. With each rule Soos comes up against, she is forced to choose between doing what her parents say is right and following her instincts. When her family falls apart, she comes to see her parents as flawed, their morals based on a muddy logic. But she will also learn that they are her strongest defenders. 

‘Both cosmopolitan and Australian at the same time, Muddy People is like the best kind of cake: warm, sweet, a bit nutty – and made with so much love.’ —Alice Pung

‘Sara El Sayed is an enchanting and refreshing new voice in the Australian literary landscape.’ —Maxine Beneba Clarke

(Black Inc, August 2021)

Genre: Memoir, Nonfiction

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Book Review

The proverb, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes” (which apparently has been traced back to the Cherokee) is iconic because the truth it encapsulates is undeniable. And, memoirs such as this from young Egyptian-born Sara El Sayed provide wonderful opportunities to walk, and thus better understand, the different life experiences of our fellow Australians.

If you are taken aback by the title, Muddy People, there is no need to be. It relates to a perceptive and recurring tie-back within El Sayed’s story narrative. She explains this upfront in her Author’s Note:

“…my father is on guard. He wants me to know the rules. We are Egyptian, after all. We are Muslim, after all. We are not white. My parents’ advice has always been a crucial part of my life. When I say ‘their advice’, I mean them telling me to do things and me doing them. Their rules govern how I live. Our culture governs how I live. The fact that I am an adult does not change this. There have been many rules over the years, some logical, some not. Sometimes they contradict one another. It means that sometimes things get a little messy. A little muddy.”

This may at first seem a little dour, but note El Sayed’s refreshingly blunt and candid tone. This translates into engaging and vivid recollections of pivotal events in her family’s lives within ruled-based chapters like ‘Rule #2: Good Girls Don’t Wear Bikinis’, ‘Rule #4: No Moving Out Without a Husband’ and ‘Rule #10: No Fighting With Your Brother’. And dare I say it, in spite of the overt double standards applied to the sexes within their faith and being the target of overtly racist remarks, her ability to draw out the ironic humour while interrogating the causes of conflict with great empathy and compassion for others. This alone makes Muddy People an appealing read.

But, most impactful for me, is the light Sara El Sayed shines on the intractable problem children (particularly daughters) of parents living by strict faiths face growing up within a secular society; the emotional tug-of-war between a desire to make their parents proud and desire to fit in and form bonds with their often less than open-minded peers.

Sara El Sayed’s memoir Muddy People is an astutely written and thought-provoking read.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5

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More Muddy People reviews

‘With elegant lyricism, compelling urgency and a dark sense of humour, Muddy People by Sara El Sayed is an impressive debut memoir from the young Egyptian–Australian writer….. For El Sayed, well-worn social etiquette, such as receiving eligible suitors and paying deference to her grandmother’s wonderful cooking, all give way under the weight of absurd religious tradition and the seething rage around the many small injustices faced by an Egyptian daughter. ‘ – Books+Publishing

Muddy People: A Memoir will resonate with those whose identities have been forged under the weight of external expectation, and will provide hope to those whose shadowed hearts might still hide scars.’ – ArtsHub

‘Sara El Sayed’s writing is fresh, vibrant and dynamic.’ —Michael Mohammed Ahmad

About the Author, Sara El Sayed

Sara El Sayed was born in Alexandria, Egypt. She has a Master of Fine Arts and works at Queensland University of Technology. Her work features in the anthologies Growing Up African in Australia and Arab, Australian, Other, among other places. She is a recipient of a Queensland Writers Fellowship and was a finalist for the 2020 Queensland Premier’s Young Writers and Publishers Award. Muddy People is her first book. Check out her website and connect with her on Twitter.

This review counts toward my participation in the Aussie Author Challenge 2021, the 2021 Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Nonfiction Reader Challenge 2021.

* My receipt of a review copy from the publisher did not impact the expression of my honest opinions above.