DAMASCUS, Syria - It may seem like an unlikely place for students from the United States or Europe, but Syria has been rapidly gaining ground as a destination for foreigners who wish to learn Arabic.
Syrians point to the young foreigners in the capital as proof that their country - which is under U.S. sanctions and on its list of state supporters of terrorism - is not the closed, anti-American rogue nation often depicted in Western media.
The market for learning Arabic could flourish even more if ties between Syria and the United States warm after Syria attended last month's Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md.
U.S.-Syrian political wrangling "doesn't concern me. I'm here to learn Arabic, and this is what I'm doing," said Alexander Magidow, 23, a student from Minnesota. "I like living here: It's easy to meet people. The people in general are very friendly and helpful."
Magidow arrived in June as part of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program funded by the U.S. Department of Education. He has lived elsewhere in the Mideast and brushes off the stormy politics, though it once worried his family.
"After a year in Jordan, my mom sort of calmed down and wasn't concerned about it anymore," he said with a grin.
The Center for Arabic Study Abroad, which has long had a program in Cairo, Egypt, opened its first full-year program at Damascus University this year, with eight students - joining other institutes that draw several thousand foreigners a year.
Arabic studies have generally increased along with the West's interest in the Middle East since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. The U.S. military and other institutions are seeking more Arabic speakers because of the antiterrorism effort. Muslim converts or Muslims from non-Arabic-speaking countries are also trying to learn the language of the Koran, Islam's holy book.
Egypt, a U.S. ally that is more open to the West, remains the biggest draw for foreign students, with thousands studying at American University in Cairo and smaller private centers. Tunisia and Morocco also have programs, and Lebanon's American University in Beirut has a small Arabic-language summer program for foreigners.
But Damascus is seeing a growing demand. Syria has gradually been opening up to foreign businesses, meaning an increase in foreign workers who want to know the local language.
The main reason, however, is simply the discovery that Syria is an option despite the tensions with the West. The U.S. has accused Damascus of supporting terror for its backing of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other militant groups and of letting insurgents across its border into Iraq.
President Bashar Assad's regime also has been accused of human-rights abuses, but that has little direct effect on foreign visitors.
Though nestled between violence-wracked Iraq and Lebanon, Syria sees very little turmoil or crime, in part thanks to the heavy-handed security control.
"I often get letters from graduates who tell me how much their image of Syria changed after living here," said Ahmad Haji Safar, director of the Arabic Teaching Institute for non-Arabic Speakers. "They become our ambassadors."
"One American told me honestly that he had expected to see streets packed with Kalashnikov-toting, bearded men in
," he said, referring to the traditional Arab robe.
The institute, which receives some government funds, takes up to 1,200 students a year from up to 60 countries. Safar said that the numbers of students were rising and that the school had to turn away 100 applicants this year for lack of room.
Ghassan al-Sayyed, deputy director of the state-funded Arabic Language Center at Damascus University, said Syria's low cost of living and "well-preserved Arab character" are draws.
"Plus, not many locals here speak English," he said, "which helps the foreign students make quicker progress."