A memoir of the author, Muddy People tells Sara’s story, as a young Muslim girl growing up in Brisbane Australia, having emigrated from Alexandria in Egypt at the age of six.
She recounts her experiences at school and at home. The title refers both to the use of the word ‘muddy’ as a racist insult and also the lack of clarity or ‘muddiness’ around her family’s feelings, motivations and behaviour which throughout the course of the book she tries to unravel.
At school Sara struggles to fit in, make friends and later boyfriends. She quickly realises she is different, not only in appearance but also in terms of what she is culturally permitted to do. The reader lives these feelings and the coping mechanisms she develops with her. For example, at the age of seven she finds herself under scrutiny when she undresses for a swimming gala and makes excuses for her different appearance. Years later she decides to assume her friend Carly is being ironic when she chooses ‘Australia should not allow Muslims into the country’ as her topic in a class debate.
The book is cleverly organised around 23 rules related to culture and religion which her mother, grandmother and in particular her father expect her to keep. They include ‘good girls don’t wear bikinis’ and ‘no moving out without a husband.’ Lots of things are ‘haram’ or forbidden. Anecdotes are described to illustrate each of the rules.
These chapters are interspersed with shorter chapters focused on her Mama and Baba. The time scale moves from past to present as she seeks to unravel what lies behind her parents’ divorce and at the same time explore her own identity and sense of self. Her love for her father, his struggle to fit in and lead his life obeying the rules of his religion and her respect for her mother and grandmother shine through.
Imbued with warmth and humour, this is an honest, moving and skilfully written coming of age memoir.