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Book review: Muddy People, Sara El Sayed, Black Inc

An intricate memoir that traverses the muddy divides between child and adult, tradition and change, self and other and identity and culture.

Sara El Sayed’s debut memoir introduces the author (affectionately known as Soos), who migrated from Egypt to Australia as a young child. El Sayed’s mostly-chronological narrative is framed by the author’s coming-of-age, alongside poignant echoes of intergenerational family mythology.

Soos’ formative childhood memories are interspersed with snapshots of the author’s adult life, in which she spends time with her dying father, seeing him — not as an amalgamation of the various roles he has played to others — but as a human being unto himself. 

Muddy People details the evolution of Soos’ life and personal identity. Some sections are self-contained bubbles of memory, rich in detail, whilst others focus more broadly on the bigger picture of cultural and familial dynamics. Each chapter is headed with either a parental title, or a rule to follow; a fitting framework for Soos’ early life. At times, the relative rigidity of her family’s faith contrasts with the attitudes of her peers, causing conflict.

The author does not portray herself or her relatives as being perfect, but the palpable affection permeating her childhood remembrances counteract the potential for hostile judgement. Endearing exchanges and Arabic phrases are woven throughout the narrative, bringing to life the personalities of Soos’ family members, especially Baba and Mama. 

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Sara El Sayed captures the fundamentals of her lived experience so intimately, it hardly matters whether or not the book contains composite characters or non-verbatim phrases. Soos embodies the quintessential essence of a young girl growing up Muslim in modern Australia. Her personal experiences are unique, but the emotional resonances of change, uncertainty, and finding one’s place in the world, are universal.

Recollections involving casual, overt, and internalised racism and/or misogyny are approached with the benefit of maturity, hindsight, and compassion; however, the acknowledgment of harms perpetrated by discrimination are implicitly confronted in the subtext. For example, the difference between the treatment of Muslim sons and daughters plays out subtly in various contexts throughout the book, spanning childhood antics and adult relationships.

El Sayed takes great pains to avoid playing into cultural tropes, whilst still recognising and acknowledging the unique impact of negotiating school, friendships, and selfhood as a young Arab-Australian. 

The distinctive personalities of Mama, Baba, Nana, Mohamed, and Aisha are preserved in the amber of Soos’ memory; somewhere between these pages lies part of the El Sayed legacy.

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. 

Muddy People by Sara El Sayed
Publisher: Black Inc. 
ISBN: 9781760642464 
Format: Paperback 
Pages: 256 pp
Publication Date: 3 September 2021
RRP: $29.99

Nanci Nott is an Australian writer who believes in dismantling traditional pedagogy in parenting and education, for the purpose of raising freethinking, compassionate, world-changers.

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