Foreigners head to Syria to learn Arabic

Syria has been rapidly gaining ground as a destination for foreigners who wish to learn Arabic.

Foreigners head to Syria to learn Arabic

Syrians point to the young foreigners in the capital as proof that their country — which is under U.S. sanctions— is not the closed, nation often depicted in Western media.

The market for learning Arabic could flourish even more if ties between Syria and the U.S. warm after Syria attended last month's Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md.

U.S.-Syrian political wrangling "doesn't concern me, I'm here to learn Arabic and this is what I'm doing," said Alexander Magidow, a 23-year-old student from Minnesota. "I like living here, it's easy to meet people, the people in general are very friendly and helpful."

Magidow arrived in June as part of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program funded by the U.S. Department of Education. He has lived elsewhere in the Mideast and brushes off the stormy politics, though it once worried his family.

"After a year in Jordan, my mom sort of calmed down and wasn't concerned about it anymore," he grinned.

The Center for Arabic Study Abroad, which has long had a program in Cairo, Egypt, opened its first full-year program at Damascus University this year, with eight students — joining a number of other institutes that draw in several thousand foreigners a year.

Arabic studies have generally increased along with the West's interest in the Middle East since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. The U.S. military and other institutions are seeking more Arabic speakers.

Muslim converts or Muslims from non-Arabic-speaking countries are also trying to learn the language of the Quran, Islam's holy book.

Egypt, a U.S. ally that is more open to the West, remains the biggest draw for foreign students, with thousands studying at the American University in Cairo and smaller private centers. Tunisia and Morocco also have programs, and Lebanon's American University in Beirut has a small Arabic language summer program for foreigners.

But Damascus is seeing a growing demand. Syria has gradually been opening up to foreign businesses, meaning an increase in foreign workers who want to know the local language.

"I often get letters from graduates who tell me how much their image of Syria changed after living here," said Ahmad Haji Safar, director of the Arabic Teaching Institute for non-Arabic Speakers. "They become our ambassadors," he said.

"One American told me honestly that he had expected to see streets packed with Kalashnikov-toting, bearded men in galabiyas," he said, referring to the traditional Arab robe.

The institute, which receives some government funds, takes up to 1,200 students a year from up to 60 countries. Safar said the numbers of students are increasing and the school had to turn away 100 applicants this year for lack of room.

Ghassan al-Sayyed, deputy director of the state-funded Arabic Language Center at Damascus University, said Syria's low cost of living and "well-preserved Arab character" are draws. "Plus, not many locals here speak English, which helps the foreign students make quicker progress," he said.

The center, which opened in 1995, now has more than 1,000 foreign students a year.

Maqbool Ahmad, a Pakistani student at the Arabic Teaching Institute, said his goal is to learn the language of the Quran.

"Before coming here I was scared and worried because I'd heard from the media that it is unstable and there are a lot of political problems," he said. "But when I came to Syria I found the exact opposite. It is a safe country."

Safar said his school is secular, though it gets religious students. Those whose primary concern is religious, however, usually prefer the Abu Nour Islamic Foundation, a conservative theological school.

For others, the draw is Damascus' rich history, with a well-preserved Islamic center dating to the 8th century, along with older Roman and Christian sites. "It's a great city," said Maria Nomik, 32, an Estonian from the University of London who is learning Arabic here.

"Syrians are very friendly. They may keep a bit of a distance, but it's natural for every country," she said. "Even if I'm living in London as a foreigner it's still the same — you cannot just merge in society."


Güncelleme Tarihi: 21 Aralık 2007, 21:02
Akoulou - 15 yıl Önce

I attended arabic summer courses there in Damscus university too on July 07'. I decided to share my experience. So I created a website:

Visit it, you will find wonderful photos !