Returning to study Arabic less formally than as a college student led the author to travel through the Arab world.
The saying goes that it takes seven years to learn Arabic and a lifetime to master it. In her engaging, colloquial account, freelance and travel writer O’Neill recounts how, at the age of 39, just after the events of the Arab Spring, she decided to return to Egypt and take up a more vernacular approach to studying Arabic rather than approaching it “as if it were a dead language.” Instead of studying the eloquent Arabic of medieval poetry known as Fusha, the author sought to immerse herself in the way people really speak, the Ammiya, devoid of the “crushing” grammar rules and full of humor and an ingenious root system. Now she wanted to use Arabic “as a social connector.” In addition to several weeks of language classes in Cairo and a stint of study in the Gulf states, Lebanon, and Morocco, she was determined to be open to meeting and conversing with anyone who seemed interested, to mostly comic effect. The problem was that each country used a different dialect, and the Arabic she learned in Egypt was considered somewhat pedestrian elsewhere. Traveling alone in Dubai, a rarity in itself, she had hoped to encounter a more “pure” form of Arabic in the Gulf, yet she found so few people who would actually speak to her since the United Arab Emirates is made up of enormous numbers of guest workers. After a literary festival in Dubai, she took language classes in Beirut, impressed by the elegant transformation of the once war-torn city. In Fes, Morocco, where she stayed with a host family, she understood very little of the swift-moving dialect Darija, peppered with much French. In the end, O’Neill, frequently overwhelmed by the “culture’s little codes, the clues and symbols that exposed sect and allegiance,” needed much more time to master this language.
A valiant chronicle of the author’s “Year of Speaking Arabic Badly.”