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cropped Zora ONeill at the Pyramids credit Abdallah

20 questions for: Zora O’Neill (#18)

Episode #18 of my series “9273 roots”: 20 questions for the woman who wrote a book about her journey to the Arabic language: Zora O’Neill

Last updated: 5 months ago

Lisān al-‘Arab (لسان العرب), the famous dictionary of Classical Arabic, contains 9273 roots (and 4,493.934 words). A huge playground for people who are passionate about Arabic such as…

Zora O'Neill

زورة أونيل

The woman who wrote a book about her journey to the Arabic language.

  • Date of birth: 15th of July 1972
  • Place of birth: California, but grew up in New Mexico
  • Place of residence: Queens, New York City
  • Website: https://www.zoraoneill.com

Zora O'Neill
Zora O'Neil

How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn't know you?

I am the author of the book All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World, a perpetual student of Arabic, and generally language-obsessed.

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

What was your first Arabic grammar book?

I started studying Arabic in 1990, so now it's been so long I can't remember! I see Ziadeh and Winder (Introduction to Modern Arabic) still there on my shelf, so that might have been one my early references?

What is your favorite Arabic book (novel, etc.)?

Tayeb Salih's موسم الهجرة إلى الشمال (Season of Migration to the North): complex, vivid and beautiful, right down to the level of individual words.

How much time does a native speaker of English need to master Arabic?

“Seven years to learn it, a lifetime to master it,” one of my teachers once told me, and that seems to ring true. I am absolutely still slogging.

ONeill All Strangers hi
Zora's book about Arabic.
picture credit: Zora O'Neill

Zora's book: All Strangers Are Kin – Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World

What is the book about? In short: Why learning Arabic can sometimes feel like such a hopeless task, and why it's worth it. This is what her publisher says about it: Steeped in grammar tomes and outdated textbooks, Zora faced an increasing certainty that she was not only failing to master Arabic, but also driving herself crazy.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 , delight in the stories she passes on from the , and find yourself transformed by her experiences in Lebanon and . 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.

You can order the book at amazon.

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

What is your favorite Arabic word?

Where to begin? I love all the ailment words on the pattern فُعال, like صداع (headache) and دوار (vertigo) and خُمَار (hangover), because they were coined by the Baghdad translators of Greek texts.

We tend to think of neologisms as something languages have to do now, to adapt to all our modern technology and concepts—but they've been happening for centuries.

Which Arabic word do you like least?

I get nervous about any word with a غ, because it still feels like a weak spot in my pronunciation. I mean, غليظ – kill me now!

On the other hand, that's a word that feels exactly like what it means, so I can't dislike it too much.

New York City
Zora lives in New York City.
photo credit: pixabay (Free-Photos)

Which Arabic dialect do you like best?

For years I kind of pushed against Egyptian, because I studied it almost by accident, based on where the grants were and so on, and it never felt like “me.” I always thought Syrian and Lebanese sounded more elegant. But as I've gotten older I've come to appreciate it a lot more—especially the fact that it's the only dialect I am actually any good at!

What is your favorite Arabic colloquial word or expression?

I first studied in Cairo in 1992, when there was a particular ad for Schweppes on TV, and to this day, I cannot say “…شوية شوية” without thinking “شويبس جاية” (Wait a sec…Schweppes is on the way!) Sometimes I do end up saying it, and if the person I'm talking to is my age, they always laugh.

What is your favorite Arabic quote or proverb?

.الرفيق قبل الطريق

This means choose your traveling companion before your route—but I like to translate it as “Bros before roads”.

Zora ONeill in Tangier with another Zora a portrait by James McBey at the American Legation Museum
Zora O'Neill in Tangier with another Zora, a portrait by James McBey, at the American Legation Museum.
photo credit: Christine Han

What is the best thing that was ever said about the Arabic language?

Thanks to Tim Mackintosh-Smith, in his book about Yemen, where I first read the anonymous quip that in Arabic, everything means itself, its opposite, and a .

What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?

I wish I had heard this sooner, but just a few years ago a friend of mine happened to say offhand, when my husband was getting annoyed with some tech thing, “Consider it a hobby, and it will be less troublesome.”

It stopped us all in our tracks. It works for everything! So now I have a ton of “hobbies,” including Arabic, of course.

Which three people would you like to invite for dinner?

Whichever friends I've been missing because I've been traveling too much. I can't put famous people ahead of that.

What was the last great meal you had?

Just last Friday, dinner at home with friends I hadn't seen in way too long! My husband cooked: Greek stifadho, slow-cooked green beans, a little salad.

What is your favorite city?

Tossup between Cairo and Bangkok, for entirely different reasons.

Bangkok is probably as crowded as Cairo – but definitely very different.
Photo credit: pixabay (sasint)

Which book would you give to a dear friend?

Depends on the friend, but I've pushed The City and the City, by China Mieville, on so many people! Also I try to convince people to read Tim Mackintosh-Smith's books about Ibn Battuta, but they usually stop listening when I say “14th century.”

What is your all-time favorite movie?

I haven't watched it in a long time, because the end makes me weep, but Emir Kusturica's Underground.

What music do you listen to?

Depends on what I'm writing about. When I'm home from a research trip and trying to conjure the place again as I write, I always listen to radio from that place. Radio Garden is amazing for this!

Zora ONeill at the Pyramids credit Abdallah
Zora O'Neill at the Pyramids.
photo credit: Abdallah

When were you happiest?

Grouchy answer: Before I knew anything about how hard Arabic is.

Warm-fuzzy answer: When I was doing my research for All Strangers Are Kin and meeting all kinds of amazing people simply because I could speak to them in Arabic.

What is your greatest fear?

Sharks. I watched Jaws when I was too young.

Also: under-feeding people when they come to my house for dinner. I've encountered so much hospitality out in the world, I'm now self-conscious about how much Americans lack it. I even wrote a cookbook with a friend about how to throw a good dinner party. Nonetheless, somehow I did recently under-cater a dinner. My feeble excuse: I had a حمار.

What is your life motto?

Just go.

Zora O'Neill, thank you for your time.

CALL FOR SUGGESTIONS: Who should we interview soon?

Do you know an interesting person who has a special relationship with the Arabic language? Then click yes below and tell us why we should interview this person!

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