In “All Strangers Are Kin,” travel writer Zora O’Neill chronicles her “Year of Speaking Arabic Badly,” as she tried out her linguistic skills in countries ranging from Morocco to the United Arab Emirates. She speaks Friday, July 8, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
You don’t have to be a gifted linguist to be beguiled by the quirks and character of another language.
Travel writer Zora O’Neill first studied Arabic in college in the 1990s and spent a graduate-school year in Cairo trying to improve her skills. After earning a master’s degree that focused more on the classical written forms of Arabic than spoken versions of it, she dropped her studies.
“Yet,” she writes, “the language continued to rattle around in my brain.”
The author of “All Strangers Are Kin” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, July 8, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com). She will appear at 3 p.m. Saturday, July 9 at the Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island (206- 842-5332 or eagleharborbooks.com ).
In 2011-12 she returned to the Arab world with two goals in mind: to learn to speak the dialects of the streets and to seek out the rhythms of ordinary citizens’ daily lives that were being overshadowed by dire news headlines. She went to Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. “All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 316 pp., $25) is her account of her “awkward, funny, and gratifying year.”
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O’Neill isn’t claiming to be an Arabic expert. Her moments of fluency come and go. But she knows enough to be a cheerful guide through all the confusing forms the language can take.
Just as English has its mutually unintelligible dialects, so does Arabic. It’s not just the accents that vary from country to country, but the spelling and vocabulary. That presents some pitfalls for O’Neill — but it doesn’t stop her from delivering linguistic goodies.
In Egypt she’s delighted that the word for “train” — qitar — comes from “the verb for linking a line of camels together with ropes.” In Dubai, she learns that “baseer means sharply insightful, but also blind.”
Her descriptions of trying to follow conversations in Arabic are vividly comic.
“I felt as if I had strapped myself to a bucking bronco,” she says in Morocco (where a “near-total absence of vowels” distinguishes Darija, the local dialect). “I could usually grab hold of the first word, but after that, the rhythm jumped and rolled.”
Her observations of what’s going on around her follow a similar hard-to-parse course. She arrives in Cairo as the exhilaration of the Arab Spring is turning to disorienting disillusion. In the UAE, she can hardly find any native Arabic speakers because seven out of eight residents are guest workers.
Lebanon proves both more satisfying and unsettling to O’Neill’s lingual and cultural curiosity. Doing her best to get out into the countryside, she joins a hiking club, only to have one expedition complicated by an assassination, subsequent road closures and a tense detour back to Beirut.
She also discovers that the local vocabulary varies depending on which religious sect you belong to. (“This threw my whole Arabic-study plan into disarray.”)
Morocco offers her a homecoming of sorts. Her “hippie” parents lived there before she was born and they join her at the end of her travels, lending the book a sense of coming full circle — especially after O’Neill discovers the meaning of her unusual, Moroccan-derived first name.
O’Neill’s prose is affable and chatty, if occasionally gushy, and her approach to her travels is almost recklessly upbeat. Some of her moves — picking up lone male hitchhikers in the desert outside Abu Dhabi, for instance — make you worry for her. But she sails through, armed with an ability to charm her way (sometimes sternly) out of sticky situations.
Result: Her tale of her “Year of Speaking Arabic Badly” is a genial and revealing pleasure.