Growing up Arab in south-east Queensland, it was hard for Sara El Sayed to find her community.
The Egyptian-born Muslim writer, whose debut memoir Muddy People is out this month, would have been comforted by solidarity as she negotiated her identity – but she sought it out through her work instead.
“I obviously had a lot of rules and expectations, in terms of culture and religion, and it was really difficult to reconcile that with the life I had in a majority white community,” she explains. “I would read books about girls in multicultural communities – where you have sisters, siblings and friends going through similar things – but for me it was very different. I was sort of seeking that validation; that what I’m living and experiencing is no [less] fine [than] other people’s experience.”
Micro-aggressions – both physical and emotional – made it harder. The memoir recounts these like they’re nothing: El Sayed being taunted about the size of her nipples in the second grade, by a classmate who had peered into the bathroom stalls while she got changed at the school swimming carnival; in her middle years of schooling when she – the only Arab girl in class – missed out on the role of Princess Jasmine in the school play (it went to a white girl); and in high school, when a good friend of hers gave a speech in class arguing that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed into Australia.
Of the bathroom scene, she says: “That moment was the first time I became really aware that my body was different, and it was very scarring. It never leaves you, and [even in adulthood], you’re still self-conscious about these things – about the white standard of beauty which is impossible for us to achieve. What compelled [that classmate] to say that? Who told her?”
She’s a little more forgiving about the class speech given it was “just an assignment” – but, upon reflection, says that an assignment allowing students to target minority groups and hot-button issues (she chose people on welfare) shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
El Sayed recently received a Queensland writers fellowship and was shortlisted for the 2020 Queensland premier’s award for young writers. Although she has explored the intricacies of her minority identity in anthologies such as Growing up African in Australia and Arab, Australian, Other, her first book isn’t the quintessential story of migrant Otherness.
Instead, Muddy People is a reflection of moving between the lines that are drawn for us – as children, as girls, as migrants – as we come of age. And for El Sayed, those lines were drawn by family members whose logic was driven by love and tradition, a logic that was more often than not, “muddy”.
“Throughout my life I’ve obviously seen [my parents] as authority figures that imposed these rules on me, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve seen their fallibility, their imperfections, the ways in which they might say one thing and do another thing,” she says.
The reflective practice of memoir allowed her to think about her family as characters, while challenging her to write about real people whose story was yet to conclude. It also gave her an easier way to broach “touchy family issues”: instead of launching into a difficult conversation, she could simply hand over the book.
Still, it wasn’t without its anxieties. El Sayed wanted to ensure hers wasn’t a story that played into common Arab and Muslim tropes, even as she recounted her parents’ divorce, her mother’s views on marriage (“if it weren’t for money, marriage wouldn’t exist”) and her own fear of breaking some inherent cultural rule and losing her father.
“I was really conscious of that trope of Arab fathers disowning their daughters as really ‘sexy’ and I didn’t want it to be all about that, but it … was an ongoing fear for me, like, what was the line for my father? What is the thing that I’m going to do to disappoint him?”
She now believes the memoir brought her closer to her father – and although she might never know her mother’s true opinions (she says her mother’s lack of outward emotion is “nerve-wracking”), she is glad that the women who raised her come across as multi-dimensional.
“My mother … solidified the value of doing well, of education, [of] just getting on with things without complaining. My grandmother is very, very loud, in terms of volume and character. She taught me that you don’t have to put up with things just because that’s the way that they are.”
It’s a lesson El Sayed has taken on board, using her acknowledgements page to pledge to donate all royalties from the sales of Muddy People to Palestinian causes. She did so in response to concerns around the representation of Palestinian voices in Australian media and publishing – an issue on which she credits a growing network of Arab-Australian creatives for keeping her better informed.
“In this age there are Palestinian voices and Arab voices being ignored,” she says. “I see [Arab colleagues and peers] speak about [the cause] and I can’t comfortably do nothing. I’m grateful to have this extended Arab community ... of support and knowledge.” El Sayed doesn’t feel isolated anymore.
Muddy People by Sara El Sayed is out now through Black Inc