Learning the lingo in the land of Bin Laden

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.

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: