Astoria, Literary
Apr 29, 2016

Interview with Zora O’Neill, Author of “All Strangers Are Kin”

Meg speaks with Astorian author Zora O’Neill, to talk about her new book, “All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World.”

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This month we learned that the new book, All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World by local author and long time Astorian Zora O’Neill, will be released Tuesday, June 14. I’ve known Zora personally for much of my time in Astoria and am familiar with her travel and food writing, mostly—BTW her “faux stollen” recipe is a tradition during the holiday season in our household. But her experience with the Arabic language and in the greater Arab world is also well-known, and I’m thrilled that her book on that topic will arrive in my hot little hands this summer. I took some time to speak with Zora about the book, and here are the fruits of that very enjoyable and engaging discussion.

Why You Should Read This Book

The first thing I asked was why should someone read this book? She answered, “If they’re at all curious about the Middle East and want to know what’s happening behind the news and to average people who aren’t in the spotlight. Certainly anybody who has been curious about traveling there, and of course anybody who has studied Arabic—I hope it will give them a little bit of solidarity in the struggle. I’m hoping anybody who has a general traveling mindset will appreciate this book as well.”

She also shared the basic layout of the contents of the book—where she went in the Middle East and North Africa and why she chose those places in particular. “I went to four countries and selected them specifically because they represented the main different dialects of Arabic, as well as very divergent cultures.” She continues, “People in the media here always talk about ‘the Arab world’ and it sounds like this singular thing. I really wanted to talk about how within the Arab world and within how people speak Arabic it’s totally different, and each country has very much its own culture and political concerns (though I don’t get into the politics too much). Each place has a very different vibe.”

“I went to Egypt to start with, which is where I’d spent the most time before I wrote this book. And then I went to the Emirates because I had only been there on a tiny layover before; I’d never really been to any of the Gulf countries. In that section of the book I took a quick trip to Qatar after I was in the Emirates for a while. Then I went to Lebanon, and the last section of the book is in Morocco.”

As for the title of the book, it’s a fragment from a 6th-century poem from the pre-Islamic poetry era. Zora told me a little more—“Pre-Islamic poetry is still very much a part of the Arabic canon. There’s this one classical poet who has one super famous poem, but ‘all strangers are kin’ is from another poem of his. He’s basically talking in the larger context of the poem—you know that feeling of solidarity you have with the outsiders anywhere you go, like, ‘I’m American and this guy is Indian, but here we are in Scandinavia!’ The neither-of-us-fits-in kind of thing, and you feel this bond with the other guy. But taken out of context, it kind of applies to anybody you meet on the road and how you form this quick bond.”

All Strangers Are Kin: Origins

I was also curious about the impetus behind her wanting to write this book, and the reasons go back to her graduate school days. After studying written Arabic for seven years, she kind of hit a wall and questioned her future with the Arabic language, in practical terms. In her final year of grad school she was living in Egypt, which turned out to be the most difficult of her life so far—a career path in academia or the oil business did not seem viable; her spoken Arabic was weak and skill level discouraging; and she was really ill that year, on top of the misery that comes from being separated from loved ones (remember, there was no Skype back in the 90s). So, she left Cairo and moved to NYC. She felt a huge relief.

Her boyfriend at the time was also a major influence in her desire to write the book. He lived in Astoria and studied Arabic, too, and she really admired how he applied his knowledge of the language. She recalls, “He was quick to talk to everybody. To Arabs, he’d kind of break the ice and be like ‘hey, I speak Arabic, let’s chat.’ He was also great at bringing all the things back to his friends and family, like ‘oh, here’s this neat little phrase’ and ‘oh, here’s how you write your name in Arabic’ and things like that. Everybody who knew him learned about the Middle East in this human, one-to-one way.” Unfortunately, he died in 2009, very suddenly and unexpectedly. Zora was touched to see all the people who stood up at his memorial service and mentioned his ease with the language and people.

And her travels to Syria, a place she grew to love, figured significantly into the book’s origins. “Syria had this reputation even before the war as a locked away, terrible place,” she said. “My experience in Syria was so different—Syrians are just fantastic, and it was one of my favorite places to go (I went there three times). And so I had come back from Syria earlier that year [2009], and was like, ‘I can’t believe I have to explain to people how wonderful Syria is!’ And people were like, ‘wait, isn’t that part of the Axis of Evil?!?’” So that was when I started thinking about the book.” [Ed. note: Syria eventually became grouped by Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton in 2002 into “Beyond the Axis of Evil” along with Libya and Cuba. Sounds like the sequel to a bad B movie.]

The Book Proposal

The next year she started writing the book proposal, and in 2011 it was ready—and that happened to be right around the time of the Arab Spring revolution. I remember how positive everyone felt about the potential for real change in the Middle East. Zora’s agent was shopping around the proposal at just the right time. She remembers, “Everyone was like ‘OMG, yay Arabs, we’re so excited, who knew?!?’ The things coming out of Egypt were hilarious and people were ‘who knew, Arabs were funny!’ And I had written a proposal that was basically a funny book about the Middle East, and I was able to sell it in that tiny window of optimism.”

Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse, especially when it came to Syria. “By the time I was wrapping things up and had to do the research it was kind of too late to go back to Syria,” Zora laments. “Though in retrospect it was better then than it is now and I probably could have gone. As I was done with the research and writing it up, things were getting progressively worse and worse everywhere, and I was like, ‘oh no, funny book about the Middle East, this is slightly inappropriate.’ But all the people in my book are still there and being the fabulous the people they are. Their lives are going on.”

I asked her a little bit about how she decided to order the book’s content, and it turns out it evolved over time. “Each section of the book ended up dealing with a different theme. Going in, I knew there would have to be some distinctions, but I had no idea what they would be. There was a lot of talk with my editor—for a while she was really pushing me not to write it chronologically and have the chapters more topic based. But I didn’t want to do that because I was afraid about losing the distinctions between the different countries. If you’re skipping back and forth between places it seems very typical. So, I kept with the chronological structure, and picked and chose different events based on larger themes that developed in each section.”

The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Greece

Recently, Zora has been involved with the refugee crisis on the Greek island of Lesvos, helping coordinate volunteers to help those who’ve arrived on their shores in rickety boats from places like Syria and Afghanistan. She’s actually heading back in early May to assist again on the ground. I asked her how she got involved with these relief efforts.

“That has been interesting. My husband Peter is Greek American and we always went to Lesvos on vacation. His family has been going there for a long time (they’re not originally from there but that’s where they vacation in Greece) so that’s how I knew Lesvos, and we went there on our normal trip last summer. Right before we went was when I started seeing in the news that Lesvos is where this was all going down. And then totally by accident we traveled overland from Istanbul to Lesvos and we realized went the same exact route everybody else.”

“I went to help in Greece last summer specifically because I’ve been to Syria and people had been so incredibly kind and gracious to both me and Peter there. And I thought, ‘if there is one little thing I can do to pay that back somehow…’ It’s hard to convey just how clear it is once you go and you realize, ‘Oh, this, person—this could be me, this could so easily happen in our country.’ We somehow think we’re impervious but something could happen where you have to leave your house—how would you like to be treated? You meet average middle class Syrian people and Afghans and they show you pictures on their phone of what their lives used to be like. Of course, there’s all kinds of political aspects, but the immediate needs are so obvious—just making these people feel safe is the important thing.”

She can also use her knowledge of Arabic there to help. She recounts, “Going last summer and trying to communicate with people—nothing forces you to use the language you have like an international refugee crisis.”


Home is Astoria, Queens

As for her life as an Astorian, that began in 1998 when she moved here from Egypt (with a two month stint in Indiana in between). She relished the change of pace from studying 6th century Arabic poetry. “I moved to NY and took a job as an editor for a tech magazine. I remember thinking the city was so empty compared to Cairo, and the air was so clean. And when I came here the first time and saw the produce markets it reminded me so much of Cairo. People were speaking Arabic on the street and I thought ‘this is awesome!’ I didn’t even know about the Steinway Street strip when I first moved here—it was about six months afterwards that I read about Kabab Café and thought I should check it out.”

Her favorite spots in the neighborhood still include the 24-hour produce markets, not far from her home (“Every time I go shopping I think, ‘I’m living the dream!’”) She also counts Astoria Coffee and Astoria Bookshop as additional favorites.

And speaking of Astoria Bookshop, they are hosting a book release party for Zora and All Strangers Are Kin on Wednesday, June 15 at 7pm, so mark your calendars. Zora will be there to sign books, and there will be food, drink, and great company. Pre-order your copy now.

Big thanks to Zora for giving her time to our conversation. I have no doubt that this book is excellently written, well crafted, entertaining, and I, for one, can’t wait to read it.

About Meg Cotner

Meg Cotner was trained as a harpsichordist and now works as a freelance writer and editor. She is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to Queens," and is a skilled and avid home cook, baker, and preserver.

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