Middle East studies in the News
As more Westerners learn Arabic, Syria is increasingly becoming country of choice
DAMASCUS: Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Western tourists have become more wary of traveling to the Middle East. Yet, despite the Middle East's reputation as a hot spot, or perhaps because of it, there has been an increase in foreigners including Westerners learning Arabic.
In the US, there has been a 92.5 percent increase in Arabic learning, says the Modern Language Association, which did a survey of 2,871 institutions in the United States. Universities all over the West have seen an increase in Arabic departments, brought on by high demand, despite many budget cuts.
At Oxford University applications for the master's degree program in Philosophy in Modern Middle East Studies have doubled since last year.
With the spread of the Islamic faith, the fastest-growing religion in the world, there has also been an increase of students going to Arab countries to learn the language of the Koran.
Egypt has always been, and still is, the number one country of choice for students learning Arabic as a foreign language, according to the National Foreign Language Center in Washington. But over the past several years, Syria has rapidly been gaining ground as a popular destination for Arabic studies.
In the mainstream Western media, Syria tends to be depicted as a rogue state, making it one of the least-visited countries in the region. Perhaps because of this, many students are choosing to study Arabic there to immerse themselves in an authentic environment and culture.
Jorgen Baek Simonsen, former director at the Carsten Niebuhr of Near East Studies in Denmark, remarks that many of the Danish students who went to Cairo "came back with no improved level in Arabic, simply because of the great number of foreigners in Cairo. The result is therefore no improvement at all."
Simonsen now heads the Danish Institute in Damascus, where he says he sees quick progress in students' Arabic skills due to the "Arabic environment." Professor Clive Holes, from the Oriental Institute at Oxford, advises his students go to Syria for this reason.
Denis McAuley, a Middle East studies student who studied Arabic in Syria in 2000-2001, says most Arabic language students from Oxford choose to spend their year abroad in Damascus, though this has only been in the past several years.
"A common perception is that Egypt is too hectic and Anglophone, while North Africa speaks too much French," remarks McAuley. He adds that "from that point of view, Syria's non-English speaking nature plays in its favor."
Over the past decade, Yemen has also emerged as a popular place for Arabic students. Like Syria, it has a reputation for holding onto its unique and deeply rooted traditions. However, due to violence over the past several years, including the bombings of the USS Cole and the British Embassy, and a number of kidnappings, many Western universities discourage students from going to Yemen.
Syria is one of the safest states in the Middle East and North Africa. But Gerald E. Lampe, deputy director of the National Foreign Language Center, says "recent statements in the press by the current US administration have discouraged students from studying in Syria."
"I have found Syria to be a very safe place in which to live and study … (but) when parents hear of these things, and they get the impression that Syria may be the next target of the US armed forces, they exert tremendous pressure on their children not to go to Syria," he adds.
Warka Barmada, director of Kalamoun University, the first private university in Syria, has met with delegations of US politicians who have expressed an interest in sending more Americans to Syria to learn Arabic. She recalls telling them: "First you have to tell your students that this is a safe country."
People familiar with the region do not have to be convinced of Syria's safety, and those very familiar with the Middle East choose to study in Syria for an even more practical reason: its dialect.
Sonya Shaykhoun studied Arabic in Egypt in 1997-1998 under a program of the University of London. Soon after that, her department began sending students to Syria as well.
Shaykhoun says she probably would have gone to Syria if her father weren't Egyptian. She has heard good reports about Syria's language institutes, she likes the Syrian dialect and the pride people take in their language. "In Egypt, people prefer to speak to us in broken English than listen to our broken Arabic."
Syria is also a relatively inexpensive place to live. The National Foreign Language Center estimates it is $8,000 to $10,000 cheaper for a student to study for one year in Syria than elsewhere in the region. For these reasons, the word is out that Syria is a good place to learn Arabic.
Two years ago, most Arabic institutes in Damascus, wondered how they should go about recruiting students for their classes. Now, their biggest concern is how they will meet the increasing demand.
The prestigious French Institute (for Arabic studies) in Damascus, Syria's oldest Arabic language institute for foreigners, used to have waiting lists of several months. Now, one often must apply at least a year in advance to secure a spot.
The University of Damascus Arabic language center, which opened in 1995, started with 40 students. This term, according to Ghassan al-Sayed, director of the center, there are approximately 180, though well over 200 applied.
Al-Sayed says that while many students are children of Syrians abroad or Muslims who learn Arabic for religious purposes, most of their students are Westerners with no links to the Middle East and who happen to enjoy studying Arabic. "After each crisis in the Middle East, enrollment will go down," he says. "It quickly goes back up again."
He points out that many Westerners, including Americans, British and French, are sent to Syria on scholarships by their governments.
He says they expect registration to continue to increase, and are thinking of using more classrooms and more teachers to meet the high demand. The same is true for other language centers in Syria.
Efficient response to foreign student demands is relatively recent in Damascus. Until a couple of years ago, it was not uncommon for students to spend two weeks registering for classes and residency, forcing students to miss valuable class time filling out piles of forms.
Today, this level of bureaucracy seems like a distant memory. Now, students can complete registration in one to two days at Arabic language schools in Damascus. This reflects a larger trend in Syria toward modernization and efforts to encourage foreign tourism.
This includes both mandatory English and French and computer classes for Syrian grade school students, private banks and cash machines, fast internet connections and quick processing of visas at the border. These are things normally associated with Syria's efficient next-door neighbor, Lebanon.
The Arabic language schools have also become organized, and have created websites to advertise their services.
All of this is, no doubt, good for Syria, which hopes to take advantage of an already successful market and improve its relations with the West.
For students, this means less time waiting in line, no more day trips to Lebanon for the purpose of withdrawing cash or using the internet, and more time for studying Arabic.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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