Stop Overthinking: a chat with the author of All Strangers are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World

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I recently had the pleasure of reading this excellent new book  about studying Arabic by the American writer Zora O’Neil.  The book’s core focus on studying in Egypt, Beirut, the UAE and Morocco in the post-2011 period makes it essential reading for those looking to stay up-to-date on the latest developments in teaching Arabic as a 2nd language.  

Even better than reading a good book is getting to conduct an interview with the author after reading, so thank you Zora for sharing your thoughts with Real World Arabic readers.

Your book describes your journey as an Arabic student that you began in 1990. Based on everything you have learned over the years, if you could go back in time what Arabic language-learning advice would you give to your 1990-self?

I’d say study a dialect sooner. I didn’t understand the importance of that initially. My teachers didn’t really explain there was a different way of speaking, and my listening comprehension has never been very good because I was only trained with Fusha material for a long time. I didn’t get into dialect until after my 2nd year of Fusha, when I went to Egypt for the summer.

Second, I would have maintained dialect more over the years. There was a huge gap between when I first started studying dialect and when I picked it up again. I was in Egypt in the summer of 1992, then studied it at home for the fall semester after that—and then didn’t get back to Egypt until 1998, so I wasn’t able to keep it up.

In retrospect, I also should gone to the Middlebury Arabic program. I know, because Middlebury is big on speaking Fusha, that this sounds contradictory to my dialect plan. Of course I’m glad I went to Cairo, but everyone I know who went through the Middlebury program now speaks Arabic at a very high level, very confidently.

Being forced to use the language full-time at Middlebury, as a totally basic communication tool, would have been really key for me. It would have broken down a lot of the intimidation of Arabic, and the nervousness I sometimes feel around talking to native speakers. For me later in my graduate studies, it got to the point that I couldn’t speak very well because I’d spent so much time studying Fusha, and all the grammar rules. So I just got scared to open my mouth, because I was sure I’d make a mistake.

Ok but to play devil’s advocate, wouldn’t it be easier to learn how to speak Arabic 24-7 in Cairo, a city with 20 million Arabic speakers than in Vermont?

Not really. Cairo is definitely 24-7, but you can often default to English. That first summer, I was living in the AUC dorms. It was mostly Americans there, and wealthy students from other Arab countries who weren’t necessarily interested in making friends with foreigners, at least not for the purposes of helping them speak Arabic. Also, at that age, at 20, I was not really equipped to make friends only in Arabic. I was just excited to be in a foreign country, and not really diligent or strict with myself.

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It also didn’t help at that age to be a woman. (It’s much easier now!) There wasn’t a clear, obvious path for how to meet Egyptian women who wanted to speak Arabic, at least not at that time. I think the social scene is a little different now, a little more mixed. There might be clearer paths for “which group you go to join to speak Arabic” than there was when I started studying in the 1990s.

University students and professors are always debating what is the “best” location for studying Arabic in the Middle East. Your book describes your studies in four countries: Egypt, Lebanon, the UAE and Morocco. What would you say is the best place and why?

It’s hard to say, but probably not Lebanon! No offense to Beirut, but I found it really hard to find people who would speak Arabic to me. Maybe it’s the way I socialized, though. Maybe you can be in the party scene or some other social scene and work your way into social networks where people are willing to speak to you in Arabic all the time, but I didn’t find it. People would hear me, and switch to French or English. I had to leave the city a lot to find Arabic conversation.

I hear great things about Jordan. I would strongly consider Jordan if I was doing it all again, although I haven’t yet been there. I know it has a reputation as a little boring, but hey, that means fewer distractions!

Egypt is probably fine. I studied at ILI. I found them to be quite organized, and they had very good teachers. Although I haven’t been back since 2011, so I don’t know what the vibe is at this very moment.

Many Arabic students worry about going to Morocco, since they may end up speaking dialect no one else will understand. It’s an issue, but if you want some really solid Fusha grounding, it’s great. I found the teachers to be really good. Very well educated, interested and willing to reach out and explain things.

And even though Moroccan dialect can sound so crazy and weird, and the accent is so alarming at first, when you drill down to each word, the vocabulary is actually not that far from Fusha.

Another selling point is that Morocco was also the only place I was able to do a home stay.

Let me ask you about that. You describe your experience living with a Host family in Morocco.  It seems like such an amazing way to assimilate. How easy is this to do in other countries such as Egypt or Lebanon?

It was great! It was very helpful to be able to come home and immediately use the phrases I’d just learned in class. Any downsides were related to me being 40 years old and staying in a teenage girl’s bedroom.

I asked about Home-stay in other countries, but it wasn’t an option. It’s sort of possible in Egypt, but not that common—I’ve met some high-school students who’ve had it arranged, and some intense Japanese students who arranged it themselves. The program in Morocco in Fez has been offering home-stays since the mid-1990s. They are pros, and have worked out the kinks. They have identified some really good host families.

Is there any downside to living with a Host family?

One downside I have heard people say was that their host families fed them too much!

The exchange you describe on pages 176 to 180 covers a debate of major importance to the teaching of Arabic as relates to Dialects. To give readers some background: you describe how your class in Beirut had an intense discussion about whether you can or can not start verbs with Am and Bi. One school of thought, and apparently the only that mattered, was your teacher, who was adamant that the “only” way is to say Am + the verb. No debate about that was allowed. 

Whereas there were several others in class, who heard Lebanese friends say Am and Bi plus the Verb and therefore thought it was ok to say it that way.  Because if some people in Lebanon are saying it X way, why would it be wrong?  You even describe time spent on an online forum trying to gather expert opinions to settle the issue. It reminded me of a legal case almost. All this time debating what seems like a technicality… was this a good use of Arabic student’s time?  What do you think about the utility of this from a teaching perspective?

Eventually everyone in class realized it wasn’t worth arguing with the teacher who said, “This is how we are going to do it.” My natural instinct is that everything is always relative, and you can’t make hard judgments like that. So it rubbed me the wrong way to have our teacher say, “You are wrong,” when students were citing their actual in-laws, for example.

It took me a while to realize why she had such a strong stance. It was because the school is trying hard to say “Dialect is its own thing, its own language,” and they are just trying to lay down some rules. It’s part of an effort to treat colloquial Lebanese Arabic as a legitimate language, totally separate from Fusha.

If you can say it “this way or that way” or “whatever way gets your point across,” that dilutes the mission, it muddies the issue of what the dialect is. So I can now understand why my teacher in Lebanon would say, “No, we don’t say Am plus Bi, we say only Am plus the verb.”

That scene really resonated with me as someone who is more of a believer in the “go with whatever makes you understood” approach. Do you think that the rigid insistence in “one way” is something unique about the teaching of Arabic compared to European languages?

I think the debates I described in that chapter in the Lebanon section are more prone to happen in teaching Arabic dialect, since it’s a newer subject for most teachers, compared with Fusha. Teaching dialect isn’t something that has been done for decades and decades, so a lot of teachers are teaching it without a model to follow. They don’t have the “rules” all mapped out, and they are just teaching the way they say things themselves, and they are finding the right balance.

In other foreign languages, there is more of a track record to draw from, more consensus what is “acceptable” spoken French, for example. You could expect your French teacher to say, “Enh, you could say it this way, but if you do, you will sound like someone from Provence. Do you want that?” That then leaves it up to the student.

In terms of actual practicality, yes, I think it would make the most sense for an Arabic teacher to take this approach. Ideally, instead of saying, “That’s wrong,” they’d say, “Sure, you can say it that way, but just so you know…” Then tell the student if there is some incredibly strong signal that a student would be sending if they said something a certain way. I feel like that level of intervention would suffice. But I also get why we’re not quite there yet—dialect is complex.

Is there something about the way we as Americans view the Middle East that might lead us to get over-concerned in these kinds of debates over the usage of language? Perhaps lose track of the language learning big-picture?

We as Americans tend to come at Arabic as “OMG, there is this big cultural gap to be bridged.” It makes the whole language situation seem more complicated than it is: “OMG, Shia say it this way. Sunnis say it this way!” That was one of the issues in Lebanon, for instance.

Because we think we know so much about the politics and culture of the Middle East, and think of it as so different, all of these problems get layered into the language. And then thinking about the language, you want to make the right impressions. Or at least I do!

But we don’t, I think, feel so apologetic if we go to Germany and try to speak German. You feel like you can talk to people in Europe and not cause some kind of international incident.

But fortunately, the reality is that when you speak Arabic to Arabs, almost all of them are absolutely delighted, and much more encouraging than if you’re speaking bad German to Germans. People should take advantage of that attitude. Focus on making a personal connection. You don’t have to have absolutely perfect, by the book grammar.

So, basically, students need to stop Over-Thinking?

Yes, and overthinking is the thing that hurt me for years. Terrible overthinking! I’m finally getting to the point where I’m like, whatever word, whatever dialect. Right now, after all the travel I did for the book, my Arabic is technically pretty broken, and my head is so jumbled with different accents. But I can speak a lot more freely, and it’s a great feeling to have gotten to that point!

What is the future of your Arabic journey?

It’s funny, I had to put Arabic aside to write the book in English. But pretty much as soon as I signed off on the book last summer, the refugee situation in Europe happened. And due to an intersection of family history and interests, I was in Greece and met a bunch of Syrian refugees.

In fact, Syria had been one of the main motivations for me writing the book in the first place. I wanted to share my experience in the Middle East over the years, which has been one of incredible graciousness and pleasure, not violence and terror. And Syria represented the biggest gap there: George Bush was calling it part of the axis of terror, and the newspaper version of the place is off-the-charts negative. Whereas in all my trips there, the people I met were just beyond lovely, absolutely fantastic. I was there last in 2009, and that really got me thinking about ramping up my Arabic again, and thinking about writing this book. I wanted Americans to know not-grim things about the Arab world. Syria was the best example of that. Unfortunately, by the time I started working on the book, Syria was no longer very safe to visit, so I wound up not writing about it directly.

Looping that all back to the refugee situation, because of my previous great experience in Syria, I was so motivated to help with the refugees, and wanted to pay them back somehow. So I have been using my Arabic in the last year, talking to Syrian refugees, and I have been helping volunteers get to Greece.

Is there a specific example of how you are putting your Arabic language skills to use to help the cause of Syrian refugees?

Having Arabic skills helps me convey to other people what is so important about the refugee situation. When you hear someone telling their story in their native language, it is more vivid. When you hear their story in broken English, it doesn’t have the same effect. A story in super limited English often boils down to sounding like complaints. It doesn’t sound particularly sympathetic when it is broadcast in the news.

But if you can hear people speaking about their experience in their language – you get how each person has a unique and particularly stressful case. Because I can hear stories directly, I feel like I am better able to turn around and convey the experience of being a refugee, to people who are curious about it. More individual refugee stories should be shared like this.

What’s next? Have you thought about a sequel to “All Strangers Are Kin”?

I have an idea for a new book that I’m about to start working on. It’s related to the refugee situation, but it’s fiction, and that is something I have never done before. So I’m a little alarmed about it….

In that case I don’t want to jinx you by asking you any more about it. Thanks for sharing your insights and providing more background on your book.

Want to get more content like this? Get it by email via the link in the upper-right hand corner or get new posts by way of Twitter at @nathanrfield1

7 thoughts on “Stop Overthinking: a chat with the author of All Strangers are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World

  1. Elisabeth Kendall

    I empathise with so much of this, especially the bit about being so stuffed full of fusha in the early days. I remember being almost too scared to speak in case I committed a grammatical crime. There are so many moving parts to think about in a classically perfect sentence! Thank you Nathan and Zora for articulating many of the challenges.


  2. Ms O’Neill and Ms Kendall both mention the fear of speaking engendered in the fusha class. I’ve actually written about the exact same experience:

    There followed 2 painful years of awkward dialogues; odd vocabulary (made all
    the more odd by the scrupulous avoidance of, commonly used, enormously useful,
    basic function verbs like “read” and “say”); carefully edited, nearly irrelevant
    texts; and rigid grammatical exercises, all for the purpose of providing students with
    a gradual submersion into the sea that is Arabic while at the same time shielding
    them from some of its untidy realities. By the end of that time, we students had all
    inherited the classical grammarians’ horror of errors and were afraid to open our

    This is from my contribution to the Handbook for Arabic Language Teaching Professionals in the 21st Century, edited by Kassem Wahba, Zeinab Taha, and Liz England.

    A new one is coming out fairly soon.

    But I cannot quite agree with Ms O’Neill’s assessment of the value of the fusha immersion of the Middlebury program. When she says, “everyone I know who went through the Middlebury program now speaks Arabic at a very high level, very confidently” she may be confusing correlation with causality. I never went to Middlebury, and I was glad that I didn’t. To the contrary, I found that people who had gone often used Arabic in ways that were technically “correct” but unidiomatic. I always assumed that it was that they had early on acquired the habit of resorting to the spoken fuṣḥā practices that they had acquired early at fuṣḥā-all-the-time-and-only-Middlebury. I never went, and I think that it can be said that I speak at very high level very confidently.

    She says, “Instead of saying, ‘That’s wrong,’ they’d say, ‘Sure, you can say it that way, but just so you know…’ Then tell the student if there is some incredibly strong signal that a student would be sending if they said something a certain way.” This is the way Arabic should be taught. This is the way I teach. Unfortunately, most Arabic teachers are biased strongly toward the teaching of fuṣḥā, having assimilated a host of venerable attitudes about what comprises propriety of expression. Or to put it even less accurately, correctness and incorrectness.

    Instead of Middlebury, I went to the Virginia Yarmouk program, which in the day cost half the price of Middlebury, complete with airfare. And students spent the summer in the Arabophone world rather than rural Vermont!

    I’m interested to read Ms O’Neill’s impressions of studying Arabic in the UAE, having recently moved here to head an Arabic program.

    Perhaps its in the book, which I haven’t read yet because I haven’t been able to find it where I’ve been living. But I do own a copy because a former student of mine has sent it to me at my mother’s address, so I’ll read it at Xmas time, when I’m home for a visit.


  3. Elisabeth, I’m glad my own problems resonate with others!

    dwilmsen, thanks for sharing that passage about your Fusha studies! Arabic is indeed a sea. (Al-Qamus al-Muheet, in fact…)

    And great to read your comments about Middlebury. Makes me feel better for not going. 😉

    I had a hard time there finding anyone to speak Arabic with, but I was in Dubai a lot of the time, and not enrolled in a full-time super-structured program, which could have helped. Basically had to go to RAK to find people to talk to, and then only by accident (literally–you’ll see!).

    I will keep an eye out for the new edition of your book. Good luck with the Sharjah program! (I read Nathan’s interview with you on this site.)


  4. Pingback: 9 Arabic language takeaways from watching a brawl between an Egyptian Security officer and a Tunisian Lawyer – Real World Arabic

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