“The ‘Arab Word’ is really worlds, plural”—Zora O’Neill
Zora O’Neill could be described as an outgoing, witty, and determined New York City-based travel journalist.
After studying classical Arabic in the 1990s and earning her master’s in Arabic literature, in 2011 she went on a “linguistic grand tour” of the Middle East, traveling through four countries that represent the main dialects of the Arabic-speaking world—Egypt, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco. To improve her Arabic but most of all to speak in Arabic with the people she met along the way. And then decided to write all about this journey in her book All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World (AUC Press, 2018).
In these Seven Answers, O’Neill explains why she wrote this memoir, what it meant for her to learn Arabic, and what trips to the Middle East she has planned for the future.
AUC Press: What book(s) are you currently reading?
ZO: I’m in the middle of Twice a Stranger, a great book by Bruce Clark about the population exchange of 1923, specifically how the various communities in Greece and Turkey dealt with this absolutely intense refugee situation. I’ve been involved in the current refugee situation in Greece the past few years, so the historical context is fascinating and very relevant.
I also keep dipping back into We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled, an oral history of the Syrian revolution, as told by refugees and compiled by Wendy Pearlman. There’s so much written about refugees and total junk political analysis by outsiders, so it’s refreshing to read Syrians in their own words.
AUC Press: What is it about Arabic learning and traveling that really fascinates you?
ZO: At first, I was just a language geek who liked Arabic because it was complicated and intricate. I mean, the dual! What’s not love?
But once I started traveling in the Middle East, starting in Egypt, and using Arabic to talk with people, I really appreciated how it dissolved differences. It’s so gratifying when the language barrier comes down. After you share a moment in another language, you realize how much we tend to distrust or assume wrongly, just based on not understanding someone’s words.
AUC Press: What advice would you give to somebody who wants to learn Arabic?
ZO: Pick a dialect right away, and learn it in tandem with Fusha (written/formal Arabic). In an ideal world, you can kind of bounce one off the other, I think. When the rules of Fusha get too intense, escape into easier dialect with no case endings. When you don’t know a new dialect word, use Fusha morphology rules to work it out. It’s all daunting, but the great thing about Arabic is that native speakers are so encouraging of every little effort.
Also, flash cards on your phone—I love Anki. None of these digital tools existed when I was first studying! I have a little zine called Learn Arabic…in 25 Years, and a Tumblr blog that goes with it. I just stash all the fun online stuff I find there. It’s mostly with a note like “So cool—will watch later!!” And, I admit, a lot of it is still all waiting for me to watch.
AUC Press: Why did you want to write All Strangers Are Kin?
ZO: I wanted readers to see the Arab world the way I’ve had the good fortune to see it: not all the bad news and stupid stereotypes we get in America, but a place with real, individual people who have the same concerns and interests as anyone. And I wanted to point out that “the Arab world” is really worlds, plural. So many different overlapping cultures and traditions—which was part of the reason I focused so much on dialect, to reflect that diversity.
Also I have to admit, I was a little driven by frustration, specifically about the escalating, irrational paranoia Americans have let themselves develop since 9/11. People getting booted off planes for speaking Arabic—ridiculous! This book was a response to that. A very loving response, but still.
AUC Press: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while writing the book?
ZO: My first draft was about 150,000 words, which turns out to be, oh, 500 pages. First-time author problems. I had no idea why my editor was so alarmed when I sent it to her. Fixing that took a whole extra year.
More generally, I’d originally pitched the book as kind of “surprise—a funny book about the Middle East!” But then the Arab Spring started to go wrong, and I was typing away and thinking, Oooh, wrong tone. There’s a scene in the Egypt section where a bunch of foreigners are laughing at a Bassem Youssef episode, and the one Egyptian with us is like, “Not funny.” I learned a lot just from that moment.
The book still is fairly light, and it has a lot of funny moments, but now the jokes are all directed at myself.
AUC Press: If you were writing your autobiography, what would the title be?
ZO: Well, All Strangers Are Kin! I’ve been studying Arabic for more than half my life, so you learn a lot about me even while I’m describing all the people I’ve met in the process.
Otherwise maybe Therapist to the World. In all my travels, I usually wind up listening to people tell me about their problems. And nothing fascinates me more.
AUC Press: You once said that you regret you did not smell the “Eau de Facebook” when you were visiting the UAE emirate of Al-Ain and “a young man in a tight striped polo shirt” offered a sample spritz of the FACEBOOK “berfume” he was selling in his shop. Do you have any other regrets of things you did not do or do while on your grand tour of the Middle East?
ZO: Some people who’ve read my book react with shock at some of the things I did, like picking up hitchhikers and going to homes of people I met on the street. But that’s what speaking a local language gets you: more confidence to trust people. I’d do it all again, and really, everything went quite smoothly. (File this under another writing challenge. How to make a good story when there’s no drama? Thank goodness for the car wreck in the UAE!).
But I really regret not doing one thing, which was visiting Syria again when I had the chance, in late 2011. I’d visited a few times before, and it was one of the inspirations for writing, because the people I met there were so lovely, in complete contrast with what most Americans imagine.
I also regret not going to Jordan. But this is fixable, and on the huge plus side, a Jordanian guy read my book and loved it, and messaged me and offered to show me around when I do visit. So I hope to get to Jordan soon!