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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.

During the past year, attacks on foreigners and locations frequented by foreigners perpetrated by the international terrorist network have become increasingly frequent. There was an attack on the American embassy in Sana’a in September 2008, and a suicide attack killing four South Korean tourists and their Yemeni guide in March 2009.

“Al Qaeda attacks in Yemen have increased in number and sophistication over the past two years,” said Letta Taylor, author of a new Human Rights Watch report on terrorism and counterterrorism in Yemen. “In addition, there have been several kidnappings of westerners by tribes outside the government’s reach.”

One prominent U.S.-sponsored Arabic study program, the Critical Language Scholarship — which brought Sweetser, of Minnesota, to Yemen in the summer of 2007 — pulled out of Yemen a year ago due to security concerns. The scholarship is sponsored by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and is administered by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers.

Yet the threat of Al Qaeda, which routinely calls for its agents to target foreigners in the Arabian Peninsula, hasn’t deterred new students from enrolling in Sana’a’s Arabic schools — not yet at least.

"From an ethical point of view, we want them to come, but we understand" if they are scared, said Jameel Al-Bazili director of CALES. He added, however, that eight new students had registered in classes the previous week.

“One month after I came there was an attack, and that was worrisome,” admitted Ryan Cooper, referring to the Al Qaeda attack on Belgians in the Hadramat Province in January 2008.

Cooper, originally from Virginia, has lived in Yemen for over a year, studying at CALES and working for a nonprofit organization.

Cooper’s mother, Barbara, was visiting Yemen from northern Virginia and spoke to GlobalPost of her concern over her son's decision to study Arabic there. “I was always concerned, but I was more concerned when we heard about different bombings,” she said. “I knew that he was studying at an institute so I thought that was kind of okay ... my feelings definitely went up and down.

"I feel like Ryan is very aware and he is not standing out as a real tourist," she continued. "In Sana'a, I always felt there was a presence of enough people, tourists, young people studying, that it was never a problem. It's different when you begin to travel on the road from one place to another."

Steven Caton, honorary dean of YCMES, who has had dealings in Yemen since 1978, still believes that the country makes an ideal place for Americans to fully engage in learning the complex Arabic language.

“This is a country where students can use the Arabic they learn in class in conversation with people on the street,” Caton said. “Yemenis don’t feel like they have to prove themselves by speaking English to you, because if they don’t somehow this reflects on their lack on education or that they aren’t modern persons.”

Caton lamented that the U.S. State Department’s warning against Yemen as a “high security threat level” country was a major deterrent to students and their families for studying in the country, as well as to universities for promoting Yemen’s Arabic language schools as a study abroad option.

“I just think that there is an investment in making Yemen seem a very volatile place,” Caton said.“The safety of a person of New York is far less than the safety of a person in Yemen, even though New Yorkers feel much safer in terms of the overall security situation of the city.”

GlobalPost asked Yemen-based American students to demonstrate their Arabic on camera: