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French Version

Spies are us: interest in Arabic soars

Primary motivation for American students of the language is to land a job with a government security agency

In little more than three years since the attacks that shattered the World Trade Center in New York, Arabic has imposed itself as the fastest-growing foreign language studied in the United States.

It took just four months after the towers collapsed for the number of American students of Arabic to double, according to the U.S.-based Modern Language Association. In Europe, too, more people are studying Arabic than ever before. Sergio Gazeau, a publisher in Barcelona, Spain, of Assimil language-learning manuals, says sales of their Arabic handbooks have "risen spectacularly." The company, headquartered near Paris, reports that sales of their Arabic learning series now rival sales of their German manuals.

Some Middle Easterners are taking the West's sudden interest for insult. The feeling is that European and American students are studying Arabic to get jobs spying on what they consider to be a dangerous Arab world. That perception is accurate, says the Middle East Language Resource Center, based in Provo, Utah. An extensive survey recently conducted by the center found that the number one motivation of American students of Arabic is to land a job with a government security agency. Only a small minority is chasing business opportunities. Maurice Botbol, a French expert on Western espionage agencies and editor of the Paris-based Intelligence Newsletter, says Middle Easterners are well aware that many students of Arabic are budding spooks. "It's not USAID that's hiring, it's the CIA; this is for spying and I don't see how Arab public opinion could be flattered by this sudden interest," he says. A CIA official in Langley, Virginia, told The Daily Star that the agency has stepped up hiring by 80 percent, "focusing on recruiting officers with critical language skills related to supporting the 'war on terror.'" Intelligence agencies in Europe are scrambling to beef up their Arabist sections, too. At the time of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Italy's civil and military intelligence agencies, respectively SISDE and SISMI, employed only five Arabic-speaking agents. Government agencies on both sides of the Atlantic are still having a hard time filling job openings. Private security firms are competing for the same scarce candidates (these companies, beneficiaries of coalition outsourcing, have more personnel in Iraq than Britain's military contingent). Witness Titan Corp, a San Diego-based contractor that provides Arabic interpreters to militaries. Salaries hover around $100,000 a year, but the firm still can't meet the demand for qualified Arabists: coalition soldiers have criticized Titan for sending them unprepared immigrant cabbies and shopkeepers. CACI, a U.S. company that hires interrogators fluent in Arabic, recently reduced requirements from seven years of interrogation experience, to five years, then to two. Academics say the rush to learn Arabic follows a historical pattern in the West. During World War II, students of German eager to get jobs fighting Hitler poured out of American universities. During the ensuing cold war, Sovietologists learning Russian filled universities in NATO-member countries. Carol Saivetz, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies at Harvard, says: "Once it became clear that the new Russia was no longer our enemy there was a decline [in interest] from the government on down." In France, the ranks of Russian students have dwindled to half their cold war number, according to the Association Francaise des Russisants.

Russians, in stark contrast to many Arabs, tend to see the West's indifference as a sad sign of their decline from a great, feared power. The most serious Western students of Arabic - often those that aspire to work in national security - are pouring into language immersion programs in Arab countries. According to Worldwide Classroom, a directory of schools worldwide based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the number of study-abroad students has jumped by 70 percent since Sept. 11. Traditionally, the bulk of European and American students have chosen schools in North Africa and Lebanon, but that's changing as increasingly resolute learners shun a region with many French - and English-speakers. Many of the new students are filling language schools in countries such as Yemen and Syria, often in spite of parents apprehensive about bombings and frosty relations between Damascus and Washington.

A surprising number of private-language schools are popping up in the region, but educators still can't meet the demand. Mike Wittig, director of Worldwide Classroom, says that the figure of 70 percent more Americans studying abroad would be higher if the region's instructor and classroom capacity were greater. Arabic instructors in host countries often advise their students to remain discreet. Barbara Hassib, managing director of Cairo's now thriving International Language Institute, says that foreigners coveting security jobs "better learn early not to tell anybody." Phillip Rugg, a teacher at the Gulf Arabic Program in Al-Ain, U.A.E., says it appears that students at his school have gotten the message: All applicants are asked why they want to study Arabic, but not a single one has said he or she is preparing for a job in intelligence or national security. Rugg says locals regularly ask him why his foreign students are studying Arabic. A minority, Rugg says, seem "downright suspicious."

Kirk Belnap, director of the Middle East Language Resource Center, confirms that many Arabs are "nervous" about the new attention. But he believes the Arab world should be pleased. He recounts an anecdote: At a recent conference on the study of languages for defense, a U.S. military officer argued that instructors shouldn't teach recruits Arabic culture along with the language lest they become sympathetic. Belnap thinks the officer is fighting a lost battle. It's impossible to separate language from culture and "you can't learn that much about a culture and not come to have some sympathy for that culture," he says. "So all these spies and soldiers we are training are an investment in peace."

Beirut,01 24 2005
Benjamin Sutherland
The Daily Star
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