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A new 'Mecca of Arabic studies'?

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The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on his home city and the subsequent warsin Afghanistan and Iraq changed Jason Gluck's life. In January he left his lucrative job as a corporate lawyer in Washington, D.C., and traveled to Damascus in Syria to learn Arabic.

Says Mr. Gluck, "9/11 got me thinking about Middle East issues and made them immediate and personal. I want to contribute to that in any way I can by getting involved and working in the field."

Gluck is among a burgeoning group of a few hundred Western students living and studying in Damascus, the Syrian capital. There are currently as many as 50 Americans in Damascus, including a handful on government-sponsored Fulbright scholarships.

In many ways, Syria is an unlikely destination for students from the United States. The US has imposed sanctions on the country, accusing it of supporting terrorism and failing to stop militants entering Iraq.

Yet at the same time, Syria is fast becoming the "Mecca of learning Arabic," says Joshua Landis, professor of international studies at the University of Oklahoma. Mr. Landis has been living in and visiting Syria for 20 years.

For Western students, a new curiosity

Sept. 11 transformed everything, Professor Landis says. Suddenly, in the US, there was both curiosity about the Muslim world - and awareness that gaining knowledge about the region could be a career path.

"There's a book on Islam in most American households - it may not have been read, but it was bought after 9/11 because people felt they had to learn," he says. At the same time, he adds, "All the government bodies - the CIA and the State Department, for example - are desperate for Middle East expertise and Arabic speakers. So students see they can get a good job - if they can just learn this language."

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