All Strangers are Kin
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By M Lynx Qualey
When travel writer and refugee-volunteer coordinator Zora O’Neill enrolled in Arabic courses as an undergrad in the 1990s, not everyone understood. “An acquaintance assumed she had misheard, and that I studied aerobics,” O’Neill writes in her new memoir, “because that made more sense.”
When O’Neill came back to the language almost twenty years later, to write All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World, Americans were less likely to confuse Arabic with an exercise routine. But the interrelated network of languages lumped together as “Arabic” remained a scary black box for many, such that Arizona TV viewers complained in 2011, with straight faces, that they didn’t want to hear the word haboob (dust storm) from their meteorologists. "How do they think our soldiers feel coming back to Arizona and hearing some Middle Eastern term?" one man wrote to a local paper.
By 2015, when O’Neill traveled to refugee camps on Lesvos, the political landscape had shifted again. Yet one thing was constant: “Arabic” and the “Arab world” were still presented as singular.
In her new memoir, All Strangers Are Kin, O’Neill opens up these terms and takes us inside. She starts her journey by re-acquainting herself with Egyptian Arabic in Cairo in late 2011. She studies for a few months before she moves to Emirati Arabic in Dubai, to Lebanese Arabic in Beirut, and to several cities where she can use Darija, the Arabic spoken in western North Africa.
“People are usually like, ‘Arabic is Arabic,’” O’Neill said in a phone interview. While the written language, Modern Standard Language, is shared across a wide region, “the 100 most common words in every country are hugely different.” That was one of the reasons she wanted to write All Strangers. Because just as people think “Arabic is Arabic, they also think the Arab world is the Arab world.” O’Neill wanted to demonstrate how widely food, vocabulary, and social relations varied from country to country. “Language became a really easy way of presenting that kind of difference.”
Many non-Egyptians find it particularly hilarious to hear Egyptian slang come out of an American’s mouth—perhaps something like a Japanese businessman busting out with a heavy Southern drawl.
Indeed, every time O’Neill moved from one country to another, she underwent a fresh culture shock. After the crushing, hyper-populated embrace of Cairo, she moves to Dubai, where, she said, “I felt so lonely in the Emirates at first.” In contrast to Egypt, people in Dubai seem to rudely ignore her. Her husband back in the US provides a reality check over the phone: “You live in New York.”
O’Neill paints herself as so desperate to speak Arabic in the Emirates that she’s delighted when she gets into a car accident and, happily, a group of men pile out of the car “all gesturing wildly and shouting—in Arabic! I was thrilled.”
But despite classes and many attempts to talk with locals, O’Neill picks up hardly any Emirati Arabic, and the Dubai-specific words she discovers are loan-words from Hindi and English.
When O’Neill arrives in Lebanon, both landscape and language undergo another huge shift. Here, the language school where O’Neill takes classes won’t teach the written Modern Standard Arabic that’s shared across the region. Instead, they’re trying to standardize the usage of spoken Lebanese. They present Lebanese not as a part of the larger Arabic, but as sufficient onto itself.
Yet through all her travels, O’Neill can’t shake her Egyptian accent and vocabulary. As she notes, speaking Egyptian is an occasional source of ridicule, in Lebanon and elsewhere, as non-Egyptian speakers associate it with melodramas and slapstick comedies. Many non-Egyptians find it particularly hilarious to hear Egyptian slang come out of an American’s mouth—perhaps something like a Japanese businessman busting out with a heavy Southern drawl.
The new vocabulary of Lebanese Arabic might have been confusing, but it was nothing compared to the shock of O’Neill’s fourth Arabic, Darija. For O’Neill, Darija is an almost entirely incomprehensible slur. She’s thrilled when she arrives in Rabat and meets a woman who has a cousin in Suez, Egypt and is happy to speak Egyptian Arabic without mockery. “She was such a model of how you reach over the language barrier and how you connect with people,” O’Neill said.
The book is challenged by its attempts to reach multiple audiences. It begins with a dive into Arabic grammar, which might be helpful for beginning students and fascinating for non-Arabist linguists. For those already familiar with the Arabic root system, these parts can be skimmed.
But this isn’t a book about getting the grammar right. If the book’s essential conflict is “Zora v. the Arabic languages,” neither comes out the winner. In the beginning, she writes, she’d hoped to find her fluency: “I have tried a bit of Persian, a year of Dutch, a week of Thai; I dip into Spanish every few years. I imagine that if I could find the one language that clicks in every way – the right teacher, the right culture, the right mix of fascinating quirks and charming yet logical idioms – I might finally be fluent in something.”
In the end, O’Neill finds what’s most important to her about language isn’t about becoming magically fluent. It’s about listening and connecting to people who want to tell her their stories.
This is what O’Neill was able to take back with her when she went to Lesvos in 2015 to engage with Syrians and other refugees. “I was a little apprehensive about going to help.” But, she said, “a lot of it did end up be me sitting and listening to people's stories. Hugging people, really basic stuff like that.” From there, she helped coordinate other volunteer efforts.
In the end, O’Neill jumped the track in the battle of Zora v. Arabic. And perhaps she also became okay with sounding like a melodramatic middle-aged woman from an Egyptian sitcom—as long as it got the job done.