At a time when media coverage of the Middle East and North Africa is full of images of war, destruction and repression, and Arabic is increasingly associated with terrorists,
Zora O’Neill’s book provides another perspective. “It’s about the Arabic language and how it’s used every day: to tell stories, sing songs, and discuss personal troubles, aspirations, friendships and fashion choices… a key to a culture and the three million people who speak the language.”
They say it takes seven years to learn Arabic and a lifetime to master it. O’Neill studied Arabic in university and after a long break, decides to take it up again, focusing this time on spoken Arabic. Arriving in Egypt just after the Arab Spring, she travels to the Gulf (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ras al-Khaimah and Doha), Lebanon and Morocco. She attends Arabic classes throughout, in an attempt to learn the local dialect.
The Arabic taught in university is Fusha, the language of the Koran. This forms the basis of the other dialects—Egyptian Ammiya and Moroccan Darija, for example. O’Neill, having already spent some time in Egypt, speaks Fusha and Ammiya (which tends to the dramatic: “And you do this to me why?”). She finds Darija almost impossible to understand: Moroccans not only talk fast but tend to swallow the consonants.
In Egypt, O’Neill finds herself chatting and making jokes in Ammiya (a sure sign you’ve arrived, linguistically speaking). She loves the flourishes of the language: good morning could be sabah an-noor (“morning of light”) or sabah al-full (“morning of jasmine”). She spends time with young people like Medo, Hassan and Moataza, who talk to her about the revolution. O’Neill remains long enough to watch the initial optimist turn to doubt and disillusion.
Dubai is a big city with a large foreign population, with few opportunities to practice her Arabic. She does, however attend an Emirati poetry festival (and watches the two interpreters in the booths switch off their mikes and collapse with laughter at a particularly bad poet). She meets people from all over the region: her hostess in Abu Dhabi is Farah, a Libyan woman. In Doha, she meets up with Shatha (a Palestinian), Sara and Mariam, a group of students collecting oral histories of Qatar. In Beirut, she has to negotiate the divisions in society that persist even after the civil war.
The trip to Morocco is, in a sense, going back to her origins. This is where her parents spent time in the 1960s, and she was named after one of their neighbours. She arranges for her parents to visit it with her, and sees the country through their eyes.
O’Neill is funny, not least about her own attempts to communicate. She seeks out opportunities for conversation (including going home with a young woman for an afternoon nap), so you get a real impression of the local people. Her love for the language pierces through: Arabic runs through the book, as she explains meaning, structure and the calligraphy. She is never pedantic and I found her enthusiasm infectious.
This is a book that is long overdue.
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Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in
by Noo Saro-Wiwa
As a child, Noo Saro-Wiwa used to go to Nigeria for her school holidays. Her father, the Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, had moved his family to the UK so the children could have the best education possible. But he also wanted them to maintain a connection to the country, so he insisted on regular family visits. Noo remembers hating these trips. The mosquitoes, the visits to endless uncles and aunts, the weeks spent in villages where you had to walk long distances to fetch water—these were not things she enjoyed. And when in 1995 her father was assassinated for his campaign against government corruption, she decided she was never going back.
It was a promise she kept for several years. As a writer of travel guides she went to almost every country in Africa except Nigeria. Then almost twenty years after her father’s death, she decided that she would give the country one more chance. She spent five months travelling through the country, and this is her account of that journey.
The book is a warts-and-all reflection of Nigeria in all its complexity. In Ibadan, she visits an abandoned amusement park—the Transwonderland of the title—a victim of corruption. In Jos, she sees beautiful terracotta Nok sculptures, made between 1000 BC and 500 AD. Noo also watches a lot of Nollywood films. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a film industry in Nigeria. Today, Nollywood is one of the country’s success stories. She talks to a Nollywood film director, Teco Benson, who aspires to make films that would become an agent for change in villages.
In the the Muslim north of the country, Noo got herself a black hijab so she would blend in, and then noticed most women were wearing colourful headscarves instead. One of the women she spoke to, Rabi, resisted the pressure to conform to sharia law: she worked, wore jeans and t-shirts, and tried to organize a debate (unsuccessfully) on the possibility of having a woman president. Around 2012, when Noo was there, the government would sometimes step in to rein in the Hisbah, the religious police. Obviously things had not deteriorated quite as much as they in the last year, with Boko Haram wreaking havoc in the country.
I loved her conversations with ordinary Nigerians and their humour and entrepreneurship. They are direct and completely unabashed about making personal remarks about perfect strangers, something that reminded me a little of India. As, unfortunately, did the rampant corruption. And that is what holds these countries back—pervasive corruption on the part of the state undermines any genuine efforts to develop so completely that people either give up or become corrupt themselves. Without that holding them back, there’s no telling how far these countries could go.
Throughout the book, Ken Sawo-Wiwa is a palpable, and very real, presence: a stern, often distant father who believed in giving his children the best he could. The reader is never too far from Noo’s memories of the past, which makes this an intensely personal account. At the end of her five months, she does manage to make a sort of peace with the country.
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The book starts unexpectedly with Annie Hawes, an adolescent, imprisoned in a high security prison in Salazar’s Portugal (she never found out why). She was eventually released and deported to the UK. On her trip back, she was shown great kindness by some young men from an Algerian oasis town. She never forgets this, and in the early 1990s—over 20 years later—travels to Morocco and Algeria to look up their family.
Hawes sets off with two friends and very little money, planning to live frugally and travel like a local. This was a period of unrest, with rebellion against the government and rising Islamist movements. Hawes and her companions meet and talk to a wide range of people, from truck drivers to vineyard owners. The resulting story provides a close look at Morocco and Algeria and most of all, it captures the people —their generosity, struggles and hopes. Hawes stays in a fuduq in Morocco, an ancient inn with a courtyard for donkeys. She is warned to be careful of djinns (and discovers that some stalls stay open late to allow the djinns to shop) and finds a hidden Algerian village in an area devastated by napalm used by the French during the country’s war of independence.
What I found particularly interesting were Hawes’s encounters with local women. They were forbidden many things, but they held their own (like the women of my home, India). The book is stuffed with unusual encounters and delves below the surface of the everyday life of women of the Maghreb.
The book also explores food, which, for a foodie like me, is wonderful! Much about couscous, some of it cooked by truck drivers on the roadside; pastila, a pie made with pigeon; mechoui; and olive oil, which one family still presses by hand. And when Hawes does find her family, they live in a paradise of green in the middle of the desert, filled with fruits, vegetables and the all-pervasive scent of henna: a mix of tobacco, chocolates and roses. It had me dreaming of couscous for days!
When I finished this book, I felt that I had been on this journey too. My only quibble is that there is no map.
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