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.
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."
That remains a big "if." Learning Arabic means learning to read and write a whole new alphabet that includes sounds notoriously difficult for English speakers. It also means learning to distinguish between fusha - modern standard Arabic used in the media across the Arab world - and amiya - the spoken dialect of daily life, which varies widely from country to country.
"You could learn three European languages in the time it takes to learn Arabic," says Landis.
But while taking on Arabic is a daunting task, many foreign students say it is made easier by the Syrians' friendliness and warmth - despite the general Western view of Damascus as a virulently anti-American capital city in a violent region.
Another factor: "In Damascus fewer people speak English well than in Egypt, so it's better for practicing," says David Duerden of Roxburg, Idaho, who studied Arabic in Cairo for four months before moving to Damascus with hopes to work for the US State Department. "They enjoy listening to you and don't ridicule your efforts."
Westerners learning Arabic in Damascus also praise the city's relaxed atmosphere and low cost of living. (A taxi ride across town costs 50 cents, and an extravagant meal at a top restaurant comes to between $10 and $20.)
Syria's authoritarian secular government ensures security by posting police throughout Damascus and the rest of the country. Extremist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood were outlawed in the 1980s. The political kidnappings that plague neighboring Iraq do not happen in Syria. The combination of an authoritarian government and a traditional society makes it extremely safe. "Damascus is one of the safest cities in the world," says Landis. "Compared to New York, Los Angeles, or St. Louis, it's the paragon of safety."
Students like Gluck and Mr. Duerden can choose from about 10 different institutions offering Arabic courses. Several, such as the University of Damascus, offer fusha courses with up to seven levels running simultaneously.
Arabic is the only language spoken in class, which can be intimidating, says Yon Janssen, a sociology student from Arlon, Belgium. "It's tough at first, but when you get through it, that's when you really start to profit," she says.
A month's tuition at the university, which includes classes five mornings a week, costs about $200. The British, French, German, Spanish, and Italian cultural centers also run classes, including some courses in amiya. Students can also get one-on-one instruction from private teachers.
Most Western students rent rooms for about $120 a month with families in the Christian quarter of the walled Old City, a neighborhood full of churches, mosques, and bustling souks. The city life gives people like Cristina Del Valle, a media student from Barcelona, a chance to use what they are learning.
"I live in a Syrian family house, so I practice every day and also see the way of life," she says.
Gluck says that making friends with Syrians has definitely strengthened his Arabic language skills. But it has brought other benefits as well.
"Being here has been incredibly enlightening," he says. "All the Arabs I've met have this amazing ability to distinguish between Americans and the American government. I wish I had a nickel for every time I've been told: 'I hate your government, welcome to my country!' It gives me hope for the future of East-West relations."