CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts: A few weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, John - then a nineteen year old sophomore at Harvard University in Massachusetts - decided, like many of his friends, that he wanted to sample Islam and the Middle East.
After taking two years of Arabic, enrolling in every class on the Middle Eastern economy offered at Harvard and even spending a summer learning Arabic in Fez, Morocco, John, who asked that his last name not be used, landed a $35,000-a-year job at the CIA as a budding Arabist.
John's experience reflects a surge in interest in Arabic and the Middle East at Harvard and other universities across America since the Sept. 11 attacks. Driven by political or religious curiosity, a desire to reconnect with a lost heritage, or the hope of finding a job, students are flooding Arabic classes in record numbers. Harvard's first-year Arabic class enrolled 34 students in 2001-2002. The next year, the number of students more than doubled to 71. This year, 65 students enrolled in the course. A class in Harvard's government department called Comparative Politics of the Middle East drew 22 students in 2000-2001 and 90 students the next year.
Like Harvard, which has used a $1.5 million gift from a New York alumnus to hire a new Arabic lecturer, universities across the nation have been struggling to meet student demand. A 2003 survey by the New York-based Modern Language Association found a 92 percent increase in enrollment in Arabic studies from 1998 to 2002.
Although some professors say interest may have started to wane, the numbers are still testing the ability of universities to keep up. Despite hiring a new adjunct professor of Arabic, Columbia University in New York turned away language students last year because of overfilled classrooms. Princeton University in New Jersey hired a new political scientist specializing in the Middle East in part because of surging student enrollment. Last year 586 students took a class in Princeton's Near East Studies department, compared with 382 students the year before the Sept. 11 attacks. To cope with similar demand, the University of Dallas created a new Institute of Hebrew and Islamic Studies in 2002 and the University of Oklahoma recently announced the university's first endowed chair in Arabic.
The expansion of Middle East studies programs has not come without controversy, however, as some have accused professors and administrators of pushing a political agenda.
Campus Watch, a website founded last year to expose alleged anti-Americanism at universities, has publicized what it calls the mixing of politics and scholarship to disparage the United States.
"Especially in a time of war those who know about the enemy ideology should be constructive in trying to help the country," says Campus Watch founder Daniel Pipes. "That's not what I've seen in general."
While groups like Campus Watch claim to seek balance in the classroom, many university professors and administrators consider them a threat to academic freedom.
"They're not interested in balance," says Barbara Petzen, outreach coordinator of Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. "They're interested in having their point of view heard over others."
While Arabic teachers say they try to avoid political advocacy, many view themselves as cultural ambassadors as much as grammar guides.
"We try to say: 'Here are some elements of this culture, don't fall for traps of politics or traps of stereotypes,'" says Ahmed Jebari, 51, who teaches a 10-week Arabic class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Massachusetts.
Shukri Abed, the chairman of language and regional studies at The Middle East Institute in Washington, and also a professor of Arabic at The University of Maryland, says he hopes his teaching will contribute to the end of what he calls a "dark period" in relations between the US and the Arab world.
"Hopefully, the learning of Arabic will open people's minds and bring people to their senses about Arabic culture," says Abed, who blames both Islamic extremists and neoconservatives in Washington for the current social and political rift between the US and much of the Arab world. "I've changed lots of minds in a very positive way," he says.
While many students sign up for Arabic classes to better understand the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, others come with few preconceived notions and an eye on the growing number of jobs for Arabic speakers within agencies of the US government.
Before Sept. 11, the FBI employed about 40 Arabic speakers. Now, about 200 work at the Bureau, largely as translators of wire-tapped conversations. A spokeswoman for the CIA says the agency has started an ongoing recruiting drive for Arabic speakers (the exact number sought is classified). Currently, about 4 percent of those hired at the CIA speak Arabic.
Amy Keith, a junior at Stanford University in California who has studied Arabic for three years, says she's received three emails from CIA recruiters, but has not been tempted by the lucrative positions, some of which carry $15,000 bonuses for Arabic speakers.
"You always know it's there as a back-up plan," says Keith, an African-American from Los Angeles who wants to be a journalist, potentially writing on the Middle East.
Many US students cite a sense of idealism for learning Arabic and studying the Middle East. Even the CIA, viewed cynically by many both in the Middle East and in the US, can be a vessel for high-minded reform, John believes.
"I knew that (a job with the CIA) was a great way to use what I learned in school for a practical effect," John says. "There are things the government can do to help people in the Middle East as long as the US is humble and doesn't go too far."