Visiting the author of the quirks and charms of the Arabic language

In ‘All Strangers Are Kin’, travel writer Zora O’Neill recounts her ‘Year of Poor Arabic’ as she tested her language skills in countries from Morocco to the United Arab Emirates . She speaks Friday, July 8 at the Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle.

You don’t have to be a gifted linguist to be seduced by the quirks and character of another language.

Travel writer Zora O’Neill first studied Arabic at university in the 1990s and spent a graduate 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 its spoken versions, she dropped out of school.

“Yet,” she writes, “the tongue continued to vibrate in my brain.”

Appearance of the author

Zora O’Neill

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 It will appear at 3 p.m. Saturday, July 9 at Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island (206-842-5332 or

In 2011-2012, she returned to the Arab world with two goals in mind: to learn to speak the dialects of the streets and to research the rhythms of everyday life of ordinary citizens that are overshadowed by the headlines of the news. 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 his account of his “awkward, funny and rewarding year.”

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O’Neill does not claim to be an expert in Arabic. His moments of fluidity come and go. But she knows enough to be a cheerful guide through all the confusing forms language can take.

Just as English has its mutually unintelligible dialects, so does Arabic. It’s not just accents that vary from country to country, but spelling and vocabulary. This presents a few pitfalls for O’Neill – but that doesn’t stop him from delivering linguistic gifts.

In Egypt, she is delighted that the word for “train” – qitar – comes from the “verb for tying a line of camels with ropes”. In Dubai, she learns that “baseer means very insightful, but also blind”.

His descriptions of trying to follow conversations in Arabic are very comical.

“I felt like I had attached myself to a wild horse,” she says in Morocco (where an “almost total absence of vowels” distinguishes Darija, the local dialect). “I could usually catch the first word, but after that the beat jumped and rolled.”

Her observations of what is happening around her follow a similar course that is difficult to parse. She arrives in Cairo as the euphoria of the Arab Spring turns into disorienting disillusion. In the United Arab Emirates, she finds hardly any Arabic speakers because seven out of eight residents are guest workers.

Lebanon proves both more satisfying and unsettling to O’Neill’s linguistic and cultural curiosity. Doing her best to get out into the countryside, she joins a hiking club, only to have an expedition complicated by an assassination, subsequent road closures, and a tense detour to Beirut.

She also discovers that the local vocabulary varies according to the religious sect to which you belong. (“It upset my entire Arabic study plan.”)

Morocco offers him a sort of homecoming. Her “hippie” parents lived there before she was born, and they join her at the end of her travels, making the book feel like it’s come full circle – especially after O’Neill discovers the meaning of her unusual first name, Moroccan origin.

O’Neill’s prose is affable and garrulous, if occasionally gushing, and his approach to his travels is almost recklessly optimistic. Some of her actions — picking up lonely male hitchhikers in the desert outside Abu Dhabi, for example — have you worried about her. But she navigates through, armed with an ability to charm her way (sometimes harshly) out of sticky situations.

Result: His account of his “Year in which Arabic is spoken badly” is a brilliant and revealing pleasure.