Last night I finished reading Zora O'Neill's All Strangers are Kin. Admittedly I purchased the book because the cover caught my eye, and the title sealed the deal. Of course, I already believe we are all related, and science seems to have confirmed the idea. If we would treat all strangers as if they were beloved and long-lost kin, the world may become a better place, and also if we would sometimes treat our kin, to whom we occasionally do a disservice because we think we know them too well, with the courtesy which we should accord to strangers, the world would also be a good place.
But this is not what the book is about. The book is really about the linquistics of Arabic, about its history and cultural relevance and the way language and culture interact in ways that define and shape each other, and how this is not really clear in the formal study of a language as opposed to the more organic path to learning a language through spoken relationship. I'll happily admit that I enjoyed the author's exploration of the language itself, and did not find the sections of the book about language at all tedious. But then I still possess a kernel of that girl who wanted who applied for gradutate study in linquistics. That I didn't go is a good thing as I recognize that I am not really linquist nor scholar material, but O'Neill's joy in the language and its use is familiar, and I found the book fascinating even as I recognize that it would not appeal to everyone.
Of course, although the book is clearly about language, it explores far more than mere words. Zora O'Neill travelled to four countries to travel and study and explore spoken Arabic, not the formal scholarly Arabic she learned in grad school, and the book is filled with her story. It is about Zora herself, and her own journey, as much as it is about the language and the people she meets. It is a book filled with stories, filled with humanity, filled with insight. It is a book about listening, and about living and about the complex way language shapes our interactions and our connections and about the way our daily interactions shape our lives, and the people we become. Zora O'Neill uses language to show us a sense of daily life in parts of the Arab world, a world most of us know nothing about. Through language and communication she paints a portrait of people, people very much like ourselves, people who love, and dance, joke and sing, and sometimes struggle to get by. In the beginning of the book she reminds us that the portrait we see of the middle east, through headlines and the nightly news is not normal, that "the news is, by definition, the abnormal". And she reminds of this again near the end of the book, when she is in Morocco and is asked how it feels to be an American in the Muslim world during these terrible times. But she is not aware of the terrible things going on in the news, she is simply eating, drinking, talking and studying. She is simply living, and she takes us along on her journey. Although that journey has some fits and starts, and occasionally rambles, O'Neill is a gifted storyteller with a self-deprecating sense of humor, who in the end shows us that language, like our lives, has its inconsistencies, and humor, and that yes, all strangers are kin.