BEIRUT: In “All Strangers Are Kin” — winner of the 2017 Society of American Travel Writers Lowell Thomas award for best travel book — Zora O’Neill argues that the Arabic language is not only a tool to read, write and speak, but is also a connection.
The book, now available in a paperback edition, focuses on the Arab world, but ignores wars and political conflicts. Instead, it deals with Arabic, the world’s fifth most popular language, and its everyday use to tell stories, sing songs, make jokes and talk with friends.
O’Neill believes that we can communicate just by listening and nodding and saying thank you from the heart.
“My aim in this book is to bring average people in the Arab world to your attention. I want you to imagine what their lives might be like,” she writes.
Like most foreigners, O’Neill studied written Arabic, known as “Fusha.” Written Arabic is used from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, while spoken Arabic consists of dozens of dialects.
After O’Neill obtained a master’s degree in Arabic, she realized that she could understand a poem composed in the sixth century but was hardly able to have a conversation with her landlord in Cairo.
In 2007, after returning to Egypt to update a guidebook, she began studying Arabic again, focusing on spoken Arabic and “interacting with people, not books.”
O’Neill embarked on four successive trips to countries representing the main dialects in the Arab world — Egypt, the UAE, Lebanon and Morocco.
The fun starts the day she arrives in Cairo. On her way from the airport, she hears the taxi driver telling a pedestrian: “Ya gamoosa” (“Move it, you water buffalo”).
“All Strangers Are Kin” is a compelling and colorful memoir. O’Neill’s tales of adventure are woven with glimpses of her daily life and thoughts on the Arabic language that run through the narrative like a mantra.