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Learning the lingo in the land of Bin Laden

American students flock to Yemen to learn Arabic, undeterred by the country's reputation as an Al Qaeda stronghold.

SANA'A, Yemen — Nathan Karp takes a table inside the campus of the Yemeni College of Middle Eastern Studies, cracks open his dog-eared Arabic dictionary, sips the first of many cups of potent tea and begins going over his verb conjugations.

Though no stranger to college campuses — having grown up in Berkeley, Calif., and studied at Brown University as an undergraduate — the 23-year-old is way out of his comfort zone.

Outside the school’s walls in this the capital of the southern Arabian nation Yemen, one of the poorest and least westernized countries in the Arab world, most men roam the streets with their jambiyas, or traditional daggers, hanging from their belts, while the women wear the niqab, a black head-to-toe covering that in many instances does not even reveal the eyes. It’s a land where tribal allegiances run deep and conservative Islam pervades daily life.

It's also a land that the U.S. State Department quite explicitly discourages Americans like Karp from visiting unless absolutely necessary. 

Needless to say, the idea of engaging in small talk with the locals seems a little far-fetched. Yet, that is exactly what Karp came here for two months ago, after having completed a bachelor of arts in Middle Eastern Studies at Brown and studied Arabic in Jordan. Sana’a is known among foreigners for its inexpensive yet high-quality Arabic schools — and for the fact that few Yemenis speak English, which forces students to practice outside school hours.

And astoundingly, given the extreme suspicion with which America has treated Yemen since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — the country is, after all, the birthplace of Mohamed Bin Laden, father of Al Qaeda leader Osama, and according to Human Rights Watch, the homeland of most of the 241 detainees still in Guatanamo Bay — he is by no means alone.

The number of students studying at one Arabic school, the College of Arabic Language and Eastern Studies (CALES) jumped from about eight students in 2000 to its highest number, 120, in 2007, and American students made up the majority of foreigners attending.

“I thought that Yemen would be more of an immersion experience into the Arabic language,” said Minnesota native Heather Sweetser, 29, when explaining her reasons for choosing Yemen over other popular Arabic language study locales like Morocco and Egypt. “And to my good fortune that’s what I found."

However, the benefits of studying Arabic in a country with little English language penetration also come with a price. Frequent foreigner kidnappings have been a longstanding problem in Yemen, and just last week two Dutch citizens were kidnapped on the outskirts of Sana’a by a neighboring tribe.

Moreover, Yemen faces a severe threat to its own national security — Al Qaeda’s presence in the country has been on the rise.