I recently caught up with Alya Mooro, Cairo-born, London-based journalist, and author of The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes.
We talked to Alya about her multi-cultural childhood, why she wouldn’t let the world define her, and why multi-faceted representation of Middle Eastern women matters. Here’s her story:
Newnham: Can you tell us about your background — what were you like growing up in Egypt?
Mooro: My childhood consisted of a lot of moving around. I was born in Cairo and lived there until I was five, Geneva until I was eight then London until I was twelve at which point my family moved back to Cairo for a year, then back to London, where I’ve lived ever since.
Moving around so much was very unsettling and in typical teen angst I was livid at my parents for subjecting me to always being the new girl at school. In hindsight, I’m happy I had the opportunity to build full lives in both Cairo and London. That insight and the fact that I essentially have a bird’s eye view to both cultures is in part what has allowed me to write The Greater Freedom.
Newnham: Can you tell us how you found the transition to a different country and culture?
Mooro: My family are very ‘open-minded’ but there were a few differences that came into focus quickly. When I was in my early teens, many of my English friends had boyfriends and were allowed out at what seemed to be all hours of the day and night. I wasn’t allowed the same freedoms and I remember my mum often saying to me: “we don’t do these things.” I struggled to understand who this ‘we’ was, when in many ways I didn’t feel all that different to my friends.
Moving around so much, writing was always my constant and I would take pen to paper in an effort to figure out what I was feeling and what I was thinking; it was my own form of therapy. It wasn’t something I thought I could do as a career until I got a bit older and started meeting creatives of all different industries, who were following their passions and turning them into jobs. I was inspired, and haven’t looked back since.
Newnham: Tell us about your book, The Greater Freedom. What made you write it and what do you hope readers get from it?
Mooro: As I grew older I increasingly felt a pull of both cultures, and the ‘invisible jury’ in both telling me who I should be and what I should want, as a woman. I wanted to explore that and figure out in what ways my life is being impacted by this juxtaposition. I also wanted to contribute to the very reductive and often negative stereotypes of what it means to be a Middle Eastern, or a Muslim woman and provide an alternative narrative, one that is true to me and the people I know.
I hope that reading The Greater Freedom serves to make readers feel seen, and less alone, and I hope it challenges us all to unpick the things that we have been told we should be, in order for us to make our own decisions on how we want to live our lives. That is ultimately The Greater Freedom.
Newnham: Your book features some amazing women. Which stories touched you the most and why?
Mooro: One of the stories that most resonated with me was that of a Muslim Egyptian woman, who was having immense difficulty trying to marry her Christian Egyptian boyfriend, because of the difference in religions and the disapproval from both families. In Egypt, and in many countries in the Middle East, people are prohibited from marrying those of a different religion — if they do, their marriage is not considered official. Without an official wedding permit, people of the opposite sex are also not allowed to live together and their children are considered illegitimate — there is also no alternative to marriage. I’ve had friends in Egypt before who have been forced by their families to break up with their partners because of this, but her story really put it into focus for me.
Newnham: At F =, we often talk about how representation matters. What does representation mean to you?
Mooro: Representation is very important — it can serve to make people feel seen, as well as to humanise ‘others’ that are not often portrayed in the mainstream media. I’m a big believer that it’s a lot easier to be yourself if you can see yourself. It’s important for all sorts of people who look and live and love in all sorts of ways to be visible. Social media has been so amazing in increasing representation due to the fact that it’s accessible to all and not dependent on traditional gatekeepers.
Newnham: As a journalist, what one thing would you change about the media?
Mooro: The need for click-bait and to sensationalise stories. I think it can be very counterproductive. I also wish that there was more positive news instead of a focus on the negative.
Newnham: What’s your favourite quote from a book and why?
Mooro: That’s a difficult question! I have an abundance of quotes tumbling around in my brain. One of my favourites though is from Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, which reads: “We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves.”
It reminds me to put myself first and never depend too much on anyone.
Newnham: If you could go back in time, what one piece of advice would you offer a younger Alya?
Mooro: Don’t give so much importance to what other people might think! Trust your own instincts and judgement.
The Greater Freedom: Life as a Middle Eastern Woman Outside the Stereotypes by Alya Mooro is published by Little A in paperback, £8.99. Buy here.