Since the attacks of September 11th, Western countries have witnessed an explosion of interest in the Middle East. Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic language programs at Western universities have gone from near non-existence to ubiquity.
Once a region studied by few in the West, the Middle East is now the focus of much interest. Since 2001, Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic language programs have expanded rapidly—often with assistance from the Western governments.
One such program is the Islamic Civilization and Societies program at Boston College, in which students study the politics, religions, economics, arts, cultures and languages of Muslim-majority countries. This program—which was founded in 2002 with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education—is currently the fastest growing program at the university. The rapid growth seen in the Islamic Civilization and Societies program at Boston College is reflective of the overall growth of academic interest in the Middle East. One of the largest indicators of growth in the region can be seen in a study published by the Modern Language Association titled "Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2006." According to this study, Arabic language courses had an 126.5% increase in student enrollment between 2002-2006, making it the fastest growing language of study in the United States, with Chinese coming in second with an increase of 51%.
When asked why this astounding growth in interest in the Middle East has occurred, Kathleen Bailey—the co director of the Islamic Civilization and Societies program at Boston College—remarked " The events of 9/11 had a great deal to do with the sharp rise in interest in the Middle East and the Islamic world in general. But since then, people have realized that this is a fascinating part of the world in its own right. Arabic is a beautiful and expressive language, Islam is a religion with profound philosophical roots, and the politics and culture of the Middle East and North African countries are worth studying because they are intrinsically important. American students want to understand this area of the world because they recognize its importance in every respect. And when they travel to these countries, they are hooked."
As Bailey mentioned, as interest in the Middle East grows, more and more Western students are looking to study in the region in order to immerse themselves in its cultures and languages. Although Western students typically choose to study in places such as Amman, Cairo and Damascus, Sana'a draws a significant amount of students seeking to improve their Arabic and understanding of the region.
One of the largest institutions that hosts such students in Sana'a is the Yemen College for Middle Eastern Studies—which according to its website, was founded in 1989 by Sabri Saleem as the Yemen Language Center, the first institution in Yemen devoted to teaching Arabic as a second language.
When asked why they chose to study in Sana'a, students at the Yemen College for Middle Eastern Studies gave various answers, although they all centered around the exceptional—and most importantly, affordable—environment that Yemen offers to Arabic learners.
One student—from Germany—expressed that he chose to study in Yemen as "It is cheap and the dialect is very close to Fusha [also known as Modern Standard Arabic, or the form of Arabic that is used in written works]."
Another student—from the U.S. —came to Yemen for similar reasons: "Yemen is the cheapest place to study Arabic. The dialect is also the closest to Fusha."
The unique and fascinating heritage of Yemen also seemed to be a factor in most students' choice to study in Yemen, as well as the fact that few Yemenis speak English, as another American student remarked that he "came to Yemen because not many people speak English, so you are going to be speaking Arabic more than if you were in Lebanon or another country. Also, the fact that the Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight drew me to Sana'a."
All three students lauded their experiences in Yemen, and remarked that their Arabic has improved greatly since their arrival. The German student remarked that he is "getting closer to the Arabic language. I am getting used to using it, and not in an academic way, but really speaking man to man in the street. If I want to buy something I have to speak Arabic." One of the American students praised Yemen as a great place to study Arabic, saying that he would encourage others to study in the country as, Yemen has "definitely improved [his] Arabic. Honestly, I don't learn the most in class. I learn the most in the street talking to people. For the most part, people are very friendly and willing to talk to you."
When asked if they felt safe in Sana'a, all three students said they did and said that their experience in Yemen has shown that the media exaggerates the dangers of the country, noting that during their time in Yemen, none of them had felt threatened. One of the American students commented that "Yemen has been enjoyable, and the people are very nice. I have not met anyone who has looked down upon me or not treated me with respect."
When asked why he decided to travel to Yemen despite the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the country in the media, the same American student said "As long as you stay out of certain areas of the country, you will be fine. There are problems in Yemen—and they are real—but they are also largely avoidable if you are smart. Plus, it's the best place to learn, and I didn't believe that I should arrange my travel based on the acts of a few crazy people."
These students studying in Yemen are a part of the larger growth of Western interest in the Middle East. Although Yemen provides one of the most attractive environments for Arabic learners, many students remain apprehensive about coming to the country because of violent acts that have taken place in the country, such as the kidnapping of the 9 foreign nationals that occurred a little over a month ago. If Yemen can shed the negative image that it has in the West, it could replace countries such as Jordan and Egypt as the top destination for Arabic learners, opening doors of opportunity for both Yemenis and foreigners.