CAIRO (Reuters) - Professors at the American University in Cairo call them “September 11 kids”. In the heart of Egypt’s capital the university with its arabesque buildings and gardens of palm trees is a new hot spot for Americans studying abroad.
Drawn by curiosity about the September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, hundreds of American students are venturing to the Middle East, eager to learn Arabic, study Islam and cut through media stereotypes as they prepare for careers in intelligence or diplomacy.
The number of American students at the University, known as AUC, has about tripled since 2002 and reached a record of more than 400 this year.
“They come from all persuasions and all ages,” said Kim Jackson, AUC associate vice president for international student affairs. “We have students from the U.S. Naval and Air Force academies and we have a couple of guys in the Marines.”
AUC is one of the region’s most popular destinations but other language institutes in the most populous Arab country, whose government is friendly to the United States, are also benefiting from an influx of students.
At Cairo’s Fajr Center for the Arabic Language, the intake doubled to about 400 after the September 11 attacks and had another boost from the Iraq war.
“They hear about someone in Iraq or Palestine putting a bomb on themselves and they want to know what’s going on,” said Fajr’s president, Waleed el-Gohary. “People want to discover for themselves.”
Natasha George, a 38-year old Texan, decided to study at AUC in Cairo after her brother Michael deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Air Force.
“I wanted to understand how we got into a position where we were invading a country with no real reason,” she said. “I wanted to get a first-hand look and I didn’t trust the information that the U.S. media was reporting.”
Many students say they came to the Middle East to try to understand the widespread anger in the region over U.S. policies. Most say the Arab world does not resemble the violent place they say the U.S. media often portrays.
“It’s funny how it’s different. It’s just not a scary place at all,” said University of Illinois student Anne Shivers, whose worried older brother offered her $400 not to come to Cairo.
“I’ve explained it to my parents but they still don’t believe me,” she added.
Kenneth Weakley, a 22-year-old student at Baylor University in Texas, said he was inspired to come to AUC to study Arabic after taking classes from a professor who had served with U.S. Air Force intelligence in the region.
“The news and the headlines all have to do with the Middle East and I wanted to get on the bandwagon,” he told Reuters at a cafe near traffic-clogged Midan el-Tahrir, or Liberation Square, a stone’s throw from the River Nile.
“I wanted to be introduced to Islam and know the people on a for-real basis, not based on the headlines.”
Interest in Arabic has surged in the United States since the September 11 attacks, when nearly 3,000 people died after young Muslim men from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries flew hijacked planes into buildings in New York and Washington.
President George W. Bush has proposed spending $114 million to expand teaching of languages such as Arabic, Chinese, and Farsi.
After unrest in Lebanon dimmed the appeal of the American University of Beirut, Arabic programs in Cairo are meeting demand from the United States, Canada, and European countries.
The intake in AUC’s year-abroad program, the vast majority of them Americans, jumped from 134 in 2002 to 404 in 2007, the AUC’s Jackson said.
Most students sign up for classes on Arabic language, Middle East politics and Islamic history.
“9/11 is a big push factor,” said Jackson, an American. “The (United States) as a whole has learned that we need to get serious about learning about other cultures and languages in general.”
Niambi Young, a graduate student at Tufts University in Boston, already has a job lined up with the U.S. Department of State. A Fulbright scholar, she is studying Arabic at AUC and hip-hop in the Arab world.
“If you are interested in international affairs now, it’s hard not to be interested in the Arab world,” she said. “I’ve never encountered any negative sentiment. Most people are happy and positive that I am learning their language.”
Many students also cite a gap in knowledge of the Arab world among U.S. government employees. A U.S. government study in 2006 found that about a third of U.S. public diplomacy positions in countries with large Muslim populations are filled by officers without sufficient language abilities.
“We’re not doing the job in public diplomacy that we should be,” said Michael Ruthenberg-Marshall, a junior majoring in international politics at Georgetown University and studying Arabic at AUC.
Weakley, the Baylor student originally from Kentucky, said he would try to reverse some stereotypes about the Arab world when he returns to Texas.
“People think everyone here is a terrorist or they hate you because you are Christian,” he said. “That’s not the case. When I get back I am going to tell my friends that these are good people.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith