All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World

All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World

by Zora O'Neill


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“The shaddais the key difference between a pigeon (hamam) and a bathroom (hammam). Be careful, our professor advised, in the first moment of outright humor in class, that you don’t ask a waiter, ‘Excuse me, where is the pigeon?’ — or, conversely, order a roasted toilet.”
If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you know what happens when you first truly and clearly communicate with another person. As Zora O’Neill recalls, you feel like a magician. If that foreign language is Arabic, you just might feel like a wizard.

They say that Arabic takes seven years to learn and a lifetime to master. O’Neill had put in her time. Steeped in grammar tomes and outdated textbooks, she faced an increasing certainty that she was not only failing to master Arabic, but also driving herself crazy. She took a decade-long hiatus, but couldn’t shake her fascination with the language or the cultures it had opened up to her. So she decided to jump back in—this time with a new approach.

Join O’Neill for a grand tour through the Middle East. You will laugh with her in Egypt, delight in the stories she passes on from the United Arab Emirates, and find yourself transformed by her experiences in Lebanon and Morocco. She’s packed her dictionaries, her unsinkable sense of humor, and her talent for making fast friends of strangers. From quiet, bougainvillea-lined streets to the lively buzz of crowded medinas, from families’ homes to local hotspots, she brings a part of the world that is thousands of miles away right to your door.   

A natural storyteller with an eye for the deeply absurd and the deeply human, O’Neill explores the indelible links between culture and communication. A powerful testament to the dynamism of language, All Strangers Are Kin reminds us that learning another tongue leaves you rich with so much more than words.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9789774168659
Publisher: American University in Cairo Press, The
Publication date: 03/07/2018
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 525,166
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.80(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

ZORA O'NEILL is a freelance travel and food writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and Condé Nast Traveler, and she has authored or contributed to more than a dozen titles for Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, and Moon. She lives in Queens, New York.

Read an Excerpt


Empty Talk

Cairo's traffic was worse than ever. My taxi ride from the airport, well after midnight, was stop-and-go. The smell of burning fields, marking the end of the growing season, lent a faintly apocalyptic air to our halting progress. An accident blocked two lanes, and volunteers in sports jackets and ragged T-shirts directed us around the wreckage, lit by sputtering flares.

How was Cairo doing now, eight months after the January 25 revolution? I asked my driver. (We spoke English, as the only foreign words that had popped into my head on arrival were, perversely, Spanish ones.) Did he feel safe? American newspapers had been reporting a "crime wave" of muggings and black-market gun sales. This had worried my friends and family as I planned my trip, but I knew this was statistically nothing compared with America's crime rates. Besides, I simply couldn't imagine Cairo turning dangerous — the crowds left little room for criminal behavior. Whereas New Yorkers, I had found in my life there, coped with crowding by ignoring everyone around them, Cairenes took the opposite tack: Get involved in your neighbors' business, or that of your fellow metro passengers, fellow shoppers, fellow walkers-wading-into-traffic. Pull people close and bind them to you.

The city was still safe, my driver said as we sailed down an exit ramp into Ramses Square, though he didn't take his family out too late anymore, just in case. They usually came home by midnight or one. Now it was past two in the morning, and we plunged into the square in front of the train station as if into breaking waves. People bustled, dashed, or simply stood nibbling sunflower seeds. Vendors' carts lit by dangling fluorescent bulbs displayed packages of socks and bootleg CDs.

I rolled down my window. Horns blared and tinny synthesizer music snaked from distant speakers. Everywhere — in greetings, imprecations, opinions — was the hum and snap of Arabic.

"Ya gamoosa!" the taxi driver yelled affectionately at a slow-crossing pedestrian. Move it, you water buffalo!

I sat back, letting the sound-surf wash over me, and laughed.

In September 1990, on my first day of Arabic class, the professor, tall and stern, marched in and picked up a piece of chalk. Her straight hair, parted in the middle, swung as she wrote:

* * *

"Bab," she enunciated. She pointed to the door. "Bab," she repeated, almost as a challenge. There was the door — we could use it right now, if any of us wanted.

The Arabic I studied for the next two years was the very serious kind, what most American teachers refer to as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), a slightly streamlined version of the medieval language. Arabs call it al'arabiya al-fusha, literally "eloquent Arabic." Fusha (pronounced FUS-ha, with a heavy s and a breathy h) struck my ear as lovely but formal — the language of beseeching bureaucrats, or at its liveliest, florid poets. The only jokes I heard were based on grammar.

"How are you?" goes one.


I suppose it does lose something in the translation.

When I went to Cairo to study in the summer of 1992, I encountered an entirely different kind of Arabic, a more flexible one that lent itself far better to jokes and gibes. Across the Arab world, Egyptians were known for their good humor, their wit, and their skill in kalam farigh — empty talk, but with a positive spin, the back-and-forth of an aimless afternoon.

Not that I could tell at first. The city was an undifferentiated din. Nothing, not even "Hi" and "How are you?," sounded anything like what I'd been taught. My stern professor had failed to mention that no one speaks Fusha aloud except newscasters and particularly cliquish Islamic fundamentalists. The former are reading from scripts, and the latter are inspired by God.

What Egyptians speak is al-'ammiya al-masriya — literally "Egyptian dialect," but it struck me almost as a new language. The basic vocabulary of Ammiya, as Egyptians call it, differs from Fusha, as does its pronunciation and word order, and most of Fusha's more intricate grammar rules are chucked right out the window.

That summer, I started Arabic again from scratch, in a beginner Ammiya class. Day by day, I learned to pick out words amid the street noise. First was the rhyming salutation I heard each morning from the newspaper seller: "Ahlan wa-sahlan!" Then I recognized song refrains as they trailed out of taxis and from cassette sellers' kiosks; it was the summer of heartthrob pop star Amr Diab pleading, Habeebi (my darling), khudni ma'ak (take me with you), over handclaps and a synthesized beat. Before long, I could recognize the sentence "You speak Arabic very well" — which every Egyptian was kind enough to tell me, though it wasn't true.

Speaking my limited and old-fashioned Fusha, I sounded as if I had arrived from the tenth century — or, really, a tenth-century home for not-very-bright children. Egyptians often laughed when I talked, though not unkindly. Even after I had learned a bit of Ammiya, shopkeepers and taxi drivers still grinned whenever I opened my mouth. This, I eventually understood, was because I was American, and foreigners studying Arabic, especially colloquial Arabic, were so rare that people could not quite believe their ears.

Ammiya struck me as a bit funny-sounding too. Egyptians spoke in the present participle, always going and wanting and waiting, and like overwrought heroines clutching their bosoms in shock, they tacked their question words on at the end: "The bus stops where?"

The melodramatic effect was heightened by the influence of one of my teachers, a plump matron in her sixties. Her chief pedagogical tool was video clips from Egyptian soap operas. From her, I learned to purse my lips and say, "Azzzzdak eih bizzzzzabt?" — You mean what, exaaaaactly? — in imitation of the neighborhood busybody, the one whose gossip invariably provokes a television hour of dramatic misunderstandings. My teacher encouraged us to mimic the actress's moves too, shaking shoulders and slapping hand over hand at the waist, the gesture for "Tell me everything." Reenacting this on the street, I was a one-two punchline: a twenty-year-old American squawking like an Egyptian lady of a certain age.

Eventually I learned to work with the aging-soap-queen diction, hamming it up for maximum effect. When it was clear I was intentionally contributing to the comedy, Egyptians began to let me in on their jokes. "Gibna gibna wa-hatinaha fi-gibna ...," a shopkeeper once chanted to me while I was fishing for cash. He had to explain, in pantomime, the series of homonyms, a tongue twister: "We brought cheese and put it in our pocket ..." It made no literal sense, but the flash of understanding between us — the I-get-it moment, which really means "I get you" — was gratifying enough to fuel me for a week.

Now, as I arrived in September 2011, Egypt was still basking in the afterglow of a brief period of exceptionally good humor, the January 25 revolution that deposed President Hosni Mubarak. With clever signs, absurdist tableaux, and running gags, the demonstrators had worked together to maintain a largely positive and peaceful atmosphere during an eighteen-day sit-in on Tahrir Square. The uprising had inspired Americans too. Labor organizers in Wisconsin had marched to protest the governor, bearing signs that read Walk Like an Egyptian and Egypt = 18 Days, Wisconsin = ?? Occupy Wall Street, another movement with a sense of humor, was gathering momentum every week.

More than a decade had passed since I had used a textbook. My vocabulary was primitive; grammar, only a ghost. So much had been lost, and I couldn't retrieve it all. I needed to focus. My goal, I decided that night, as my taxi driver parted the crowds to deliver me into the noisy heart of Cairo, would be to interact with Egyptians in the way they treasured: to laugh with them, to understand their jokes, and to tell some myself.

Some days later, I presented myself at the school where I would be taking classes for a month. My oral placement exam started easily enough. What was my name, asked the teacher, where was I from, and how had I learned Arabic?

These answers I knew cold. I had been repeating them for two decades. Zora O'Nile — I applied the twangy Ammiya diphthong — was my name. I came from the state of New Mexico, and I had learned Arabic in college in America and here in Egypt. But that was min zamaaaaan — a very long time ago — I added, and I had forgotten a lot.

From there, we moved on to the typical Egyptian conversation.

How did I like this country?

The only right answer was to love it.

And how did I find Cairo?

This question gave more room for nuance, though even here, I found myself digging for some of the first words I had learned, almost twenty years earlier. That first summer in Cairo, I had learned to greet people with "morning of light" (sabah an-noor) or "morning of jasmine" (sabah al-full). I had learned the word for officer: zabit, with a heavy, menacing z. There had been one on nearly every corner, though not so menacing, just bored in a kiosk, leaning on a machine gun. I had learned to complain about the zahma — crowds, of both people and traffic. This new vocabulary shaped my image of the city: here was a metropolis that could crush me, perhaps arrest me, but also fill my morning with light or fragrant white flowers.

To the teacher evaluating me, I declared my sincere love of Cairo — people were so kind, and greeted me in such lovely ways. Although, I mentioned delicately, there was of course the problem of the zahma, the traffic.

"Aywa, bi-gedd," the teacher concurred. And it was worse now, she said, after the revolution. Now there was not a single zabit to be seen — all the police officers had disappeared from the streets, leaving no one to enforce the rules of the road.

There was another matter I wanted to mention, but the word eluded me. "Izzay bit'ooli 'pollution'?" I asked.

"Talawwus!" she answered with quick, enthusiastic recognition of where this conversation was headed.

"Aywa, at-talawwus," I parroted back. Now I remembered it, also from that first summer in Cairo. The pollution had hung over the Nile in the mornings and made my snot run black by nightfall. "Attalawwus, ya'ani — hua magnooooon!" Here I stretched out the word for crazy, to buy myself time. I rolled my eyes and threw my hands up in theatrical despair.

The teacher nodded in immediate affirmation. "Do you drive in Cairo?" she asked. Her smile suggested this too was truly magnoon, for a hapless foreigner like me to attempt driving.

I hesitated, not because I didn't understand, but because I was shaky on negating verbs. In Ammiya, it requires making a little sandwich, squishing the verb between a ma– and a –sh, and often changing the rhythm of the whole construct in the process. So I dodged it with a wordless, definitive no: a brusque tsk and dramatically raised eyebrows.

In the past few days, my Arabic had just started kicking into gear. The last time I had spoken Arabic like this — broken, brazen, filling in gaps with body language — had been at the end of that first Cairo summer. My girlfriends and I had gone to the archaeological site of Saqqara, and the guard had found some problem with our tickets. I stepped forward to advocate on our behalf. Under the white glare of the sun, I mustered the key vocabulary I had learned. "Morning of goodness, Mister Officer," I said. "We paid. We good. The tickets good." I placed my hand over my heart to emphasize my sincerity. "We wanting to enter. If we not entered, the situation not good."

The guard looked me over. A thin black dog watched from the shade cast by a tour bus, long legs in front and ears straight up, as if it had stepped out of an ancient wall painting.

"Morning of jasmine, my lady," the guard said, his face suddenly radiant with a glittering smile. "You speak Arabic very well. You are good. Please, enter."

I had been nervous about this exam, in part because I had decided not to take classes in Fusha, the Arabic I knew best. I was relieved to turn my back on Fusha's crushing rules, but that left me only with shaky Ammiya. Now, though, I remembered how satisfying it could be to communicate in this dialect, even in the most basic way. I would ace this. Buoyed by memory, I leaned forward and made the "crazy" gesture — like turning a doorknob at my temple — and said, "Ya salaaaam!" This all-purpose expression could be deployed with a variety of intonations, to mean anything from "So lovely!" to "I am shocked." I was aiming for something like, "Driving in Cairo is the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard."

This produced the desired result: the teacher burst out in a full-throated laugh.


Inside the Word Factory

"Oh, a b-minus!" my mother trilled down the phone line from New Mexico. It was the spring of 1991, most of the way through my freshman year, and midterm exam grades were in. "Honey, that's great for you!"

She was always telling me things like this. Both my parents were hippies, and I was not, or not exactly. I had always been careful and focused. I did not babble, and I spoke, first at age four, in full phrases. Shortly thereafter, I announced I would call my parents by their first names, Beverly and Patrick. This annoyed my mother, but what utterly maddened her was my habit of telling long-winded imaginary stories, and restarting them fresh from the top every time I made the smallest mistake: "And then Mr. Fox fell in the river — no, the lake!" Stamp foot, breathe deep. "Once upon a time ..."

At least this thoroughness served me well later on. By age seventeen, it got me to college, as I requested brochures, filled out financial-aid forms, edited my essays. Now Beverly called frequently, to make sure I wasn't taking my fancy East Coast education too seriously.

"Follow your bliss, honey!" she said. "Remember, the best thing is just to wing it!"

Arabic is not conducive to winging it, I retorted. It has rules, systems, a right answer and a wrong answer, every time. It's like math, and I liked it for that reason.

Especially in those early years, Arabic both attracted me and fueled my worst perfectionist tendencies. Yes, it was hard, but I loved its efficiency. The Arabic alphabet, for instance, has twenty-eight letters, only two more than the English alphabet, but it is a completely phonetic representation of all the sounds native to the language. Some of those sounds are familiar — alif (|) and ba ([??]) at the beginning of the alphabet, and a little string closer to the end that goes kaf ([??]), lam (J), meem ([??]), noon ([??]).

In between, though, many of the letters represent sounds I had never heard before, much less made myself: a whispery h (ha, [??]), a throaty kh (kha, [??]), and the qaf ([??]), which sounds like an English q without a u after it, a delicate cough from the back of the throat. I particularly liked the drama of what our professor called the "heavy" letters, the portentous sod ([??]), for instance, and the dod ([??]), a d as dramatic and ponderous as the voice of God in a black-and-white Bible epic.

The 'ayn ([??]), however, briefly untethered me from certainty. The first time I heard it, I stared, bewildered, as our professor repeated the letter. Her lips barely parted, yet a tremendous, odd sound emanated from her, half foghorn, half heartsick wail. It had a hint of an r, a bit of an n, and something not consonant-like at all, more like a vowel, as its round hum had neither beginning nor end. Trying it myself, I contracted my larynx as our professor directed, hand on my throat to feel the muscles, then swallowed, simultaneously pushing sound up and out. My eyes bulged with effort.

Of the twenty-eight letters, only three are vowels, all long: alif (|), a long a;waw ([??]), like oo; and ya ([??]), a simple ee. The waw and ya do double duty as consonants, a w and a y, respectively. In my textbook, a man in a long robe was frozen midstride: [??] (yamshee, he walks), with a ya beginning the word as a consonant and ending it as a vowel.


Excerpted from "All Strangers Are Kin"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Zora O'Neill.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Empty Talk
Inside the Word Factory
A Prophecy
Two Tongues
See What We Did
Where's Your Ear?
Days of Rage
Hidden Fingers
Illuminating the House
Graduation Day

Knowledge Village
Practical, Fashion, Extreme
When Your Ear Hears
Eau de Facebook
What He Did Not Know
Heritage Club
The Best People
Supreme Poets

The New Beirut
What Is the Rule?
We Don't Talk about Politics Here
Almost a Dead Language
Your Mother
Easybut Not Good
The Weird Uncle
Pierre and His Friends
We Have Not Taught the Prophet the Price
Land of Thorns

Daddy, Mommy, Gramps
The Place Where the Sun Sets
You Pour the Tea
God Is Beautiful
Speaking Mexican
Let's Chat in Arabic
Sweet Sensation
Up in the Old Hotel
What Is the Name of This?
Crossing the Bridge



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