The Book of the Week is “All Strangers Are Kin” by Zora O’Neill, published in 2016. This volume recounted the adventures of an American who was passionate about the Arabic language.
As a college student, the author started learning Arabic. By the late 1990’s, in her late thirties, she was attending graduate school in Cairo, after which, she decided to travel around the Middle East and North Africa to try to sharpen her linguistic skills in Arabic. More specifically, she visited Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
O’Neill soon found that clear communication was made difficult because different regional populations had different dialects. Her various language teachers, coming from different nations, religions and cultures, taught different words and spellings for the same concepts and people, places and things. There are forty Arabic words for “camel.” There are borrowed foreign words such as the one for “television.”
Nevertheless, O’Neill was treated to the hospitality of strangers she met on the street. They fed her, and a few even invited her for overnight stays at their homes. Since she was a foreigner, the native peoples were tolerant of her casual clothing.
In Dubai, there were mostly expatriates. While driving by herself, she picked up single male hitchhikers. The local Muslim women wore heavy clothing in the hot desert sun, but they were outside only for a short time; everywhere they went was air-conditioned– the house, SUV, mall or office tower. All the households had a maid, mostly Filipino or Indonesian. At the mall, a shoe store clerk offered to spray a sample of “Facebook” brand perfume on the author.
Read the book to learn of the author’s struggles with writing, reading and speaking the language she loved, the people she met, and the Arabic cultures about which she was curious.