Why Jordan is leading the way in Arabic language training

TIT COUNTER of Fahad Subeihi’s falafel stand is stacked with piles of sliced ​​tomatoes, onions and pickled turnips dyed pink. “The students love it,” he says. Mr. Subeihi’s booth is located in the Jabal Amman district of the Jordanian capital, Amman, amidst a multitude of Arabic language schools. Mr Subeihi estimates that before the pandemic, half of his clients were foreigners, most of them Western students.

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Jordan has cornered the market for Arabic language training in the region. Unlike many of its neighbors, it is relatively stable and at peace. Its nickname, the “Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom,” may put off thrill seekers. But it is attracting Western universities and scholarship programs, which have largely stopped sending students to more unstable countries.

“Amman has become our biggest center,” says Pauline Koetschet of the Institut français du Proche-Orient (IFPO), which mainly teaches European students. IFPO had centers in Aleppo and Damascus, but closed them due to the civil war in Syria. It still has a center in Beirut, the unruly capital of Lebanon, but schools are increasingly worried about sending students there. “We have universities that tend to prefer Amman for security,” she says.

Oman and Morocco also offer stability, but Jordan has other advantages. Unlike Oman, at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Jordan is at the heart of the Arab world. And although Morocco is still a popular destination, its dialect, called darija, is difficult to understand. In contrast, Jordan’s is close to the Modern Standard Arabic taught in most Western classrooms.

“I feel like Amman has a monopoly on Arabic speaking students from America,” says Patrick, who studied Arabic on a Boren scholarship, a language program funded by the US Department of Defense. Normally, Jordan is Boren’s second most popular destination for grant recipients after Taiwan. (Arabic and Mandarin are languages ​​the program considers crucial to national security.) Boren scholarship students cannot train in countries for which the State Department has issued high-level travel advisories, which became common during the pandemic. Even before, however, the rule meant that nearly all of Jordan’s neighbors were unlucky.

The pandemic has reduced the number of Arabic-speaking students visiting the region, so Jordan has been particularly affected. Katy Whiting of the Sijal Institute, an Arabic language school in Jabal Amman, says that normally more than 200 students would be enrolled in Sijal during the summer. As it stands, 30 are taking in-person classes and another 30 are studying online.

The absence of students has hurt neighborhoods like Jabal Amman, which is eerily quiet. Muhammad Zuher says his restaurant, Kmajeh, near popular Rainbow Street, attracted a constant crowd of Western students. Now it is largely empty. Still, he’s confident the students will come back. “They want safety, security and practice Arabic with the locals,” he says. “Welcome to Jordan.”

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Being Boring Has Its Benefits”


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