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Book Review: Muddy People by Sara El Sayed

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Muddy People initially seized my attention with its title. Being Middle Eastern with Muslim family members, I reacted viscerally:

“MUDDY People??! Excuse me?!”

However, upon noticing its subtitle, Memoir, my understanding deepened. Iiii see. That makes sense. That’s actually kind of funny.

Despite my initial shock at the title, I found Sara El Sayed’s memoir endlessly engaging, thanks to its descriptive stories and its strong point of view. Throughout the book, El Sayed recounted stories of the conflicting values she internalized as an Egyptian-Australian growing up in a Muslim family and community. The pull she experienced from the various parts of her identity quickly became evident. El Sayed had to figure out how to be Middle Eastern in a predominantly white Australian culture while still embracing her Muslim roots.

The Push and Pull Between Two Identities

The narrative begins with her parents’ initial move to Australia. El Sayed shares how her Mom assimilated, embracing the Australian words and lifestyle, while her Dad resisted, instead expecting those around him to adjust. The dichotomy between how each of her parents managed this transition left Sara in a perplexing place. She wondered: Should she conform to the Aussie lifestyle, or remain true to her family’s identity? The book explores this push and pull.

To that end, each chapter title shares a rule for being a good Muslim in Sara’s world: no kissing boys, never locking your door, no bikinis. This concept is called haram, which means “forbidden by Islamic law.”

Growing up as an Egyptian-Australian, El Sayed felt the need to bend many of these rules in order to adapt to her new lifestyle. One standout story involves the El Sayeds inviting another Muslim family to their home. This family includes a girl, Fatima, close to El Sayed in age. El Sayed grapples with Fatima’s strict adherence to Muslim values. For example, when El Sayed wanted to play Sims, Fatima deemed it inappropriate for people to play Allah. All El Sayed wanted was to play Sims and occasionally let her Sims engage with the Grim Reaper. What does Fatima know?

A Hilariously Relatable Tale

I loved this book for numerous reasons. The writing is sharp and induced spontaneous laughter. And the book ably portrayed the inevitable challenges that come with immigrating to a Westernized country—the struggle between giving up one’s culture to fit in or staying true to oneself and facing potential discrimination.

As an Iranian-American, El Sayed’s story deeply resonated with me. Many scenes show her feeling like an outcast compared to her white classmates. She grew up with dark hair, thick eyebrows, and tan skin in a room of children who all looked the same. Why did she have to be different? Why did I?

I also found El Sayed’s struggle with staying true to her culture while feeling like she was losing it to be relatable. For example, El Sayed mentioned losing her fluent Arabic skills while living in Australia. I’ve had a similar experience. Farsi was my first language, and I still speak it, but it’s a bit rougher around the edges than it was in my childhood. The struggles El Sayed experienced reflect my own. My entire life, I’ve had to ask myself: How much do I want to prioritize who I was versus who I am? How can I be both?

In the end, I loved Muddy People, not just for the relatability of Sara’s story, but because she shares the experience of feeling different as a child in an unfiltered and humorous way. She embraces awkward moments without letting them impact her core identity. If you want an uplifting yet hilarious memoir about growth and courage while embracing the realistic expectations of growing up a little different, this one’s for you.

Yasi Agah is a born and raised Californian living out her dreams in New York City. She loves to read, write, listen to podcasts, and teach yoga. Becoming by Michelle Obama makes her cry every time she reads it.

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