All Strangers Are Kin, by Zora O’Neill

One of the titles I strongly considered for my 2017 project to read only travel writing by women was All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World by the American travel and food writer Zora O’Neill.

As I wrote previously, I didn’t include it on the grounds that it felt too much like a language book to fit into a year of travel writing. But the mix of language and travel – two big interests of mine – plus the author being an engaging and thoughtful follow on Twitter, kept it high on my “to read” pile.

So over the course of 2019, I finally got round to reading it (the fact it took me almost a year was a reflection entirely on my disgraceful lack of recent discipline as a reader and not on the book – which as my review I hope will convey is a wonderful read).

At the outset, I should clarify that this is not only a book for language nerds – though it certainly does have plenty for them. It’s also in a sense not only a book about Arabic and the Arab World, either – though obviously it looms large as backdrop and character. Alongside both those dimensions, as is inherent in most good travelogues, is the author herself, whose life story is an important feature throughout this book, and whose curiosity, interest and desire for human connection drives the story powerfully.

In that sense, it’s best to describe this book by its title (All Strangers Are Kin) than by its subtitle (Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World). Fundamentally, it comes over as a paean to humanity more than to one language or region.

Albeit of course, for a travelogue that sees the author travel through four parts of the Arabic-speaking world, Arabic, Arabs and Arab countries play a key role. The thread running through the book is Zora’s desire to improve her already good grasp of Arabic by visiting various countries for extended periods and enrolling in language classes – and these undertakings provide us with a host of interesting characters and aspects of the language.

But on that thread are hooked various subplots and themes – the politics and history of the places she visits, the food she eats, the people she meets, and the story she tells about her own life.

The journeys she undertakes stretch across the early part of the decade we have just finished; a period dominated by the fallout from the so-called Arab Spring, when developments in Middle East politics were especially to the fore in western media. That period of change, layered on top of so much other instability, makes the region ripe for cliches and stereotypes in the hands of the wrong author.

But Zora, as past student of Arabic and one-time resident of the region, falls into no such trap, and indeed her explanatory prologue shows that so many Arabic terms we may hear of with negative contemporary connotations have mundane, everyday meanings. Jihad, she tells us, conveys merely a sense of extra effort, and Allahu Akbar is simply an everyday invocation of God.

Amusingly, though, she adds:

Al-Qaeda, though? Fair enough. That word has always struck terror in me, not for its literal meaning, “the foundation,” but because its plural is the term for grammar.

(This was one of the many moments where, as a speaker of Esperanto, I found notes of interest and comparison. In Esperanto, la fundamento is the baseline collection of grammatical rules for the language. I never imagined that Al Qaeda would translate into exactly the same thing.)

While there is a rich human dimension to All Strangers Are Kin, we certainly can’t escape regular doses of Arabic grammar and the author’s reflections thereon. In her classes, her conversations with locals and her reading, she has much to share of the weird, wonderful and complex construction that lies behind Arabic – some of which might be baffling to an English speaker, and yet others I recognise as features of other languages.

She tells us about Arabic’s influence on other tongues, not least English and Spanish. She introduces us to its quirks and complexities, the playful and poetic ways in which it works, the many dialects, the difference between colloquial and classical Arabic, and the challenge all this presents to learners.

On one level as an Esperantist this appealed to me. I could recognise similar features and behaviours in Esperanto – such as the role of affixes, or the debate over imported words.

But rather than leaving us with dry language lessons, the real delight in the book is how these points of grammar are usually humanised by context, example or personal reflection. She jokes at one point:

Speaking my limited and old-fashioned Fusha [the rather formal Modern Standard Arabic], I sounded as if I had arrived from the tenth century—or, really, a tenth-century home for not-very-bright children.

There is plenty other humour that comes from how she uses – or fails to use – language with the locals. In Cairo she writes:

Later, leaving the market, I bantered in Arabic with a comically eloquent suitor (his pickup line: “Today there are two suns shining on us, because you are so beautiful”) and, waiting at the train station, charmed some surly teens by writing their names in English. Their fast, rollicking speech confused me, and a woman sitting with her family on the next bench leaned over and said, “Don’t worry, they’re teenagers. We can’t understand them either.”

The way she weaves stories about the language around personal perspectives helps brings Arabic to life. And indeed, one of her frequent dilemmas in the book is how to square the formal learning she is receiving in her classes with the everyday Arabic she is immersed into on the streets:

The problem wasn’t Arabic—I still loved its eccentricities and intricacies and all its lovely words. But at this advanced level, no one was using it to say anything I cared about. I should be outside, I thought, with the traffic, the crowds, the arguments and gossip, the greetings and jokes.

Resolving this comes, in part, from how she uses the language as a basis for life stories. One fascinating chapter revolves around a conversation she has in Beirut over beers in a bar with a graphic designer who has invented modern, easily readable typefaces for Arabic’s beautiful but complex classical script, and whose work is like a humanised story of calligraphy.

Even away from full-on language nerdery, her interactions with people are a real highlight of the book – whether her teachers and classmates, host families, or just randoms she meets on streets or buses.

Many of these people, especially the strangers (who often become like kin), are women. And this is a dimension in which Zora’s storytelling as a woman becomes important because she is able to get to know certain people that a man could not. Some of the best stories she reveals about acquaintances turned friends are about women – their lives, loves, work, hopes, aspirations and fears. The author has a great ear and inquisitive mind, sensitively yet powerfully drawing out life stories and daily struggles in a way that is compelling.

There’s a converse to this, of course, as anyone who’s read other female travel writers will recognise: Zora is frequently propositioned. All too often, men she gets talking to end up flirting with her or more. As a married woman (albeit one travelling solo) she has a good defensive line to take, and her strong, confident character means she rarely conveys a sense of discomfort or fear beyond a mild, weary irritation.

But it is to her credit as a person-centred author that she seeks as much story (and language practice) as she can from these men, before the inevitable point at which she walks away or demands the man leaves her company. And the story is all the richer for her keeping these encounters in the context of the wonderful friendships she makes and the incredible places she portrays.

Certainly, those places she visits are more than mere backdrops in this book – from Cairo to Beirut, from the Gulf to Morocco, her travels span wildly different and diverse parts of the Arab world. And – whether loving them or not – she writers about them superbly.

The bustle, noise and dirt of Cairo bursts out from the page, where she writes that in her memory the city “is always sepia-toned, though the brownish hue comes not from nostalgia, but from dust” and later, in the context of political problems, says that the city was “so big, it swallowed tragedy whole.”

Elsewhere, the beauty of Beirut and other parts of Lebanon come over strongly, as does the often clinical modernity of the UAE.

But it is in Morocco that we get a more personal sense of place, as Zora returns to the country where she previously visited and where her parents spent time – and met a person after whom they named Zora. The final section of the book is a more intimate, poignant reflection, as the author returns to Tangiers with her parents and retreads, among other things, their past haunts, their relationship, and the origins of their child’s name.

Perhaps it’s the personal, introspective nature of that visit, but Zora concludes her account of Morocco and the entire book with a meditation on what her language learning and myriad personal encounters have taught her. She realises that for all the technical knowledge of the language she has succeeded or failed in acquiring, it’s the personal encounters that have been the most rewarding, and a honed ability to listen has been her greatest gain:

Empathy, imagination, listening and nodding, saying thank you from the heart—these were skills I could use every day.

And while the cities and countries she visited would be in the news in the following months and years for all the wrong reasons, she manages to cling on to the personal connections she’s made:

I would remember the stories from this year, of people grappling with the common concerns of building a future, connecting with family, and finding love.

And if languages are for anything, they’re for doing that. This conclusion struck home to me as a speaker of a worldwide language, one I have used to travel and through whom strangers across the world have indeed become (at least metaphorical) kin. Esperanto as a language and movement would be nothing without those human connections, and the book I’d love to write about Esperanto is, on the whole, one that Zora O’Neill has written here about Arabic.

The language and story of Arabic is so long, complex and diverse, that to write about it except from a position of absolute expert must be a terrifying prospect. Where should one start? But thanks to her wit, boldness and ability to sniff out stories and connections, Zora O’Neill has given us a delightful and engaging book packed with adventure, humour, warmth, humanity and, yes, a good dose of complicated grammar.

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