All Strangers are Kin: a writer’s journey through the Arab world

Acclaimed travel writer Zora O’Neill chronicles her fascinating journey through the Arab world in her memoir All Strangers are Kin. In a blog for Vision, O’Neill shares the lessons she learnt in language, culture, and life along the way

I studied Arabic for seven years in my twenties, and I have a master’s degree in Arabic literature. But for a long time, whenever anyone asked me if I spoke Arabic, I would launch into a long explanation: “Well, it depends what you mean by speak… There are all these dialects, see, and my training is mostly in reading, which is a different form, and…” Soon enough, the person who’d asked the question was clearly wishing they hadn’t.

I started studying Arabic again, after thirteen years away, because I wanted to be able to say, simply, “Yes, I speak Arabic.” I wanted to feel as if I could truly communicate with people, and not just swap grammatical facts from twelfth-century books with other academic types. I started my new studies in Egypt because that was the place I knew best—I had studied there for a year in graduate school.

Being back in Egypt and brushing the dust out of corners of my brain was thrilling and worked even better than I’d hoped. Cairenes are fantastically chatty and outgoing, so every minute I wanted to talk to someone, I could find a partner. People would give me lessons in the most random places. A man on the street offered me a bunch of mint, but made me repeat the word—na’na’—twice before he’d hand over the gift. A taxi driver wouldn’t let me out of his car until I correctly conjugated a verb. Within a few weeks of focused study and nonstop practice, I was speaking more fluently than I ever had in my life.

But then I went and messed up the whole thing, because I had a second goal in my return to Arabic. I knew I wanted to write about it, and write not just, “I speak Arabic,” but also ,“this is what I learned about the Arab world while I was studying.” And because the Arab world is a big place, and full of diverse cultures, I wanted to study in several countries.

So after Cairo, I waltzed off to Dubai, then Beirut, then Fes. I jammed my head full of flirty-sounding Lebanese phrases, essential Emirati terms like roohi sida (what a policeman told me in Ra’s al-Khaimah as he explained why the traffic-circle accident had been my fault), and…well, to be honest, the Moroccan phrases never stuck. By the time I reached Fes, my brain was overflowing, words just rushing in and out.

But even though my Arabic got technically worse, my ability to connect with people and communicate seemed to improve as my travels went on. I was so excited to converse (some might say desperate to converse) that I would sit and chat with anyone; I accepted every invitation.

As a student in my twenties, I had met Arabs only in public places like classrooms and cafes. This time, people invited me into their homes, and I went eagerly. Drinking tea on a velvet “Louis Farouk” sofa in Cairo or nibbling the last French fries on a shady terrace in Sidon, I relaxed and listened to people tell me about their husbands and wives, their hopes for their children. On a rubble-strewn roof in Morocco, a woman I’d just met the day before confessed a great secret. I had made a friend completely in Arabic.

Today, I would still fail any Arabic quiz a teacher gave me. But I will say now, “I speak Arabic”—although I know that really means, “I’ll listen to your story.”

The 2017 edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature takes place from 3-11 March. For more on the festival visit www.emirateslitfest.com