CAIRO — Growing up in an observant Jewish family outside Boston, Mimi Asnes was always interested in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, her focus was on Israel, a topic of almost daily conversation at the Jewish day school she attended until the ninth grade.
But as a sophomore at Harvard, the diminutive Ms. Asnes struck up a friendship with a Palestinian-American woman who shared her love of hiking and the outdoors. That bond - and her friend's different perspective on Israel - sparked an interest in the broader Middle East. "I'd never met anyone who I liked and respected who had any animosity toward Israel,'' says Asnes. "I began to question the assumptions I grew up with."
Today, Asnes is one of a record number of Americans studying Arabic and the Arab world. They are on the leading edge of an educational boom that has seen the initial shock and anger at the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks feed a greater engagement with a region long neglected by US students and universities.
This fall about 480 Ameri- cans are studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo (AUC), more than double the pre-9/11 enrollment. A Modern Language Association survey from fall 2002 found that 10,600 American students were studying Arabic, up from 5,500 in 1998. Educators say that number has continued to rise, with dozens of universities adding Arabic to their curricula.
The numbers are still modest when compared to the estimated 350,000 US students studying German. The surge in interest now mirrors the numbers of Americans who studied Russian during the cold war. But even before Sept. 11, the absence of Arab students reflected an American blind spot, given the Arab World's long history of conflict, vast oil reserves, and its 280 million people. In testimony to Congress this year, Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria, said the State Department has only five diplomats with Arabic strong enough to defend US policies on Arab TV.
While many of the more advanced students like Asnes began their studies before Sept. 11, almost all say the increased US focus on the region has deepened the incentive to learn, with a surging number of job opportunities back home for people with proficiency in the language. "I just found myself really drawn to the language,'' says Khalid Wulfsberg, a rangy grad student from Murfreesboro, Tenn., who prefers his Arab first name to his given name, Paul, which sounds like an unpleasant bodily function in Arabic. "But as an American, the context of the war is inescapable."
Asnes also says her interest in the language has little to do with Sept. 11 or the war in Iraq. She says that after a year spent working at a Palestinian women's shelter in Nazarath, she came to see language as crucial to understanding. "We've seen the importance of words in spinning the Middle East conflicts,'' she says. "I want to be in control of my own spin, and that puts less distance between me and what's happening. When I was in Nazareth, just after a year of Arabic, I was able to make connections with people that would have been totally different if I only spoke Hebrew."
Zeinab Taha, director of the AUC's elite Center for Arabic Studies Abroad, or CASA, says that not only have the numbers of students risen, but so has their overall standard. "Five years ago, half of our applicants couldn't finish the entrance exam,'' she says. "This year, every single question was answered in Arabic. Long responses in complete paragraphs."
CASA, funded by the US government, is an advanced course that gives a full ride to students who already have some proficiency in Arabic, and this year it has 40 students, up from about 15 before 9/11.
The students in Cairo represent the broad spectrum of American education. Many of the students at CASA are working toward advanced degrees in Middle Eastern studies with an eye toward jobs in academia or with development organizations. Some speak of working for the CIA or the US defense establishment.
Nora Cundy, a CASA student from Paris, Maine, who worked in rural Jordan after graduating from college, says her interest in the region grew after working at a peace camp for Palestinian and Israeli children near her hometown in Maine. "What I came to understand in Jordan was that language was the most important root to understanding this region."
US undergraduates - there are about 300 spending a semester or a year here - are typically less certain about what they will do in the future, but almost all say they expect the region to remain a focus of US interest for decades to come.
Trae Stephens, a junior at Georgetown's school of foreign service, is spending the fall in Cairo before hustling back to Washington for classes and the start of the spring ultimate-frisbee season. He says he hopes to work for US intelligence when he graduates and recalls a guest lecture to his class by former CIA Director George Tenet as a pivotal moment. "It was very clear to me that this man knew a lot more than we know, and that seemed a good thing. It was sort of the epiphany,'' he says. "As globalization grows, our national security is more at risk every day. I want to be one of those people helping to make policy recommendations that can keep us out of international messes."
For some, their engagement is already yielding broader perspectives. Mr. Wulfsberg was living with a Palestinian-Jordanian family on Sept. 11, when a news broadcast interrupted an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. "Everyone was immediately denying that Muslims could have been involved, though this quickly moved to a lecture on US foreign policy," he says. But that evening he also visited another Jordanian family who seemed personally overwhelmed by the tragedy. "They were crying and distraught. Until the invasion of Afghanistan started, I couldn't get in a cab without the driver apologizing for what had happened at home."
Wulfsberg tries to limit his time with other foreigners, socializing with Egyptian and Afghani friends who study at Al Azhar, the ancient university that draws Muslim students from more than 90 countries. He tells people on the streets that he's Norwegian, mostly so people don't try to practice their English with him, but also because he's grown tired of becoming a stand-in for the US government.
"Sometimes I feel a little guilty about it, because I could be making a dent in some people's impressions of the US,'' he says. "You know, here's this American guy, and he's interested in learning about Islam and our culture."