A lifelong love affair with Arabic opened doors – literally and figuratively

Zora O'Neill at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where she held a workshop on learning Arabic in March this year / Courtesy Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
Zora O'Neill at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where she held a workshop on learning Arabic in March this year / Courtesy Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

The first word I learned in Arabic was baab, meaning door. It was the first day of college, the first day of Arabic 101. My professor said the word aloud, wrote it on the board – swoop, swoop, dot, dot – and gestured to the classroom door. It came out almost like a challenge: there was the door, and anyone who wasn’t ready was welcome to get up and use it.

I took that challenge and stayed in my seat – in part because I didn’t know what I was getting into. I’d signed up for Arabic because I did not want to study a Romance language like Portuguese or Italian but I had no particular connection to it beyond my name, which came from a Moroccan woman my mother had known before I was born. I didn’t even know Arabic was considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn.

At any rate, baab seemed simple enough: sounds I already knew from English, letters that were curvy but easy to recognise. That first day, I did stagger out just the tiniest bit overwhelmed but I was 18 and optimistic. The strange sounds – the whispering ha, the cryptic qaf, the confounding 'ayn – were still to come, as were the convoluted syntax, the arcane grammar and of course, the bottomless ocean of vocabulary and the dazzling variations of the dialects.

I’m 45 now and I have studied Arabic off and on ever since that first day – and it has absolutely opened not just one door, but countless doors: literal and figurative, obvious and completely unexpected, in the world and in myself.

At first, I studied in the classroom, in college and then in graduate school. The door that opened to me was one to the library. I studied bookish Arabic, Fusha, known as “eloquent Arabic”, the language of poets and essayists. It was the 1990s and very few people in America studied the language, or understood why I might want to. I eventually left graduate school when my ever-more obscure studies in classical Arabic poetry felt like a dead end. Nonetheless, Arabic did open the next door, to work at a technology magazine. The job posting read: “Good grades, good school, impractical major?”


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Looking back from this point in the 21st century, I’m grateful I was able to spend all that time behind the library door, getting to know Arabic for its own beautiful sake, as a language of poetry and rhetoric and debate. Because I had come to Arabic with virtually no previous exposure, I learned about the Arab world via Arabic itself: how the language of the Quran spread with the Islamic empire and how the region now is a patchwork of cultures and histories, with Arabic as a common thread.

I was also lucky to learn about the Middle East and its politics and conflicts almost entirely through literature. The poetry of Mahmoud Darwish introduced me to Palestine; Hanan Al Shaykh gave me vivid, human insight into the Lebanese civil war. Tayeb Salih, with his especially beautiful prose, illustrated postcolonial history and migration. Because I learned through literature and language, I was always keenly aware of people, of real, vivid individuals who lived through history (even if they were sometimes fictional). This stuck with me, even when I was alone in the library and long after I left it.

About 10 years ago, I came back to Arabic. I took a job updating a travel guide to Egypt, where I had studied in graduate school. This was a very different experience from being in the classroom and it required completely different vocabulary and ways of relating to people (a tip: always ask for directions, or anything, really, from the man at the kushk, the corner kiosk – they know everything).

In many ways, I had to start all over again. Library Arabic does not transfer well to the streets of Cairo, to say the least. But even though I was dejected at first, I saw that a whole new door had opened to me: a kind of office door, where I could use my Arabic as part of my profession. From there, doors continued to open so that later, I was able to travel around the Arab world, studying Arabic in the UAE, Oman, Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco and writing a book about it.

Everything I encountered on my travels reinforced what I had learned in the library and expanded it. Arabic is a uniting language, a shared heritage, but also diverse and fascinating, varying by country, region, even by city neighbourhoods – a reflection of the diversity of the Arab world itself. In practical terms, this very often meant I would travel a short distance and no longer understand much of what anyone was saying, as if I were back in Arabic 101 again.

More recently, Arabic opened another, completely unexpected door, when, because I spoke the language, I went to help Syrian refugees in Greece. Again, I had to learn all new vocabulary – Syrian dialect and the legal vocabulary of asylum. But I also had the honour of hearing people’s stories first-hand and seeing and meeting individual people in what can, from a distance, look like a undifferentiated mass, a faceless crisis.

Arabic requires constant relearning whenever I shift countries or social contexts and this can be intensely frustrating. So can the grim realities of the refugee crisis, as well as some American policies and attitudes toward Arabs. Nonetheless, I keep studying and practising for the sake of people I have met from the Arab world, whether that is Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Syria, the UAE or Greece.

Everywhere I have travelled, native Arabic speakers have opened the door for me and invited me in. I mean this literally, into their homes, feeding me and telling me jokes and spritzing me with perfume – but also figuratively. More than any other language I’ve studied, Arabic is one that native speakers take pride and delight in and want to share, wherever they are and whatever the situation. They have welcomed me into Arabic, praising me (even when it’s unwarranted), encouraging me and teaching me. Thanks to them, I know that I made the right choice, all those years ago, when I stepped through that very first door.

Zora O'Neill is a New York City-based travel writer and the author of All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World

Published: December 18, 2017 01:17 PM


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