Learning Arabic In Jordan

I was reading this AP piece today and it occurred to me that it’s actually pretty reflective of something I’ve observed recently: there are a lot of foreigners learning Arabic in Jordan. Casual visits to areas like Rainbow Street feel like study halls. Most of them are American. The numbers are increasing to the point of notability and you can’t help but run into someone of such background every now and then.

Part of me is actually impressed. I think to myself: wow, in this post 9/11 world, here is this whole emerging generation that is so interested in this region, our culture, our tradition our language.

And then the other part of me thinks: damn, these guys are all going to go back to the US…

And work for the CIA or NSA.

[for further reference, see comment #7]


  • It’s been a bit of a trend for a while now for South African Muslims to study Arabic in Jordan.
    I don’t know who these people work for now:)
    The husband and I have been kicking around the idea of doing an Arabic study stint in Syria next year.

  • Hahaha!
    U sound just like me !
    I am just torn between being impressed and falling for the conspiracy theory !
    My father befriended an American couple who are here to study Arabic , at the beginning I felt there was sth fishy about the 2 but when they started being regulars at our house , I just think of them as any other family friends of ours .

  • Hey you dont need to worry about us language students going back to work for the US government. Many branches wont take you if you have lived to long in an Arab country or traveled to places like Syria or Iraq cause the background checks take to long and the US government wants people it can mold into representing their policies. Chances are if you’ve lived in the Middle East and pay any attention at all you are not going to agree with US policies and they know that. Most of us are just looking for something different to do and thought Jordan sounded cool.

  • Well, I don’t think they’re all going to work for the CIA and NSA…

    (I’m learning Arabic myself, a child of the post 9/11 you may call me, and I’d rather starve to death then working for any of these organizations.)

  • before i get jumped by any expats, i should point out that the observation is meant to be humorous and as lostwithin points out, partly poking fun of our conspiracy-theory state-of-minds.

  • There are also those who are doing it to proselytize even though it is supposedly illegal in this country. I have met many of them and they are not too shy to admit it.

  • maybe they’re here just for the Mansaf…

    I used to be alert around “those potential-future-spies learning arabic”, until I befriended so many of them here, and now I totally believe, like MJ Wells says above, they just think “jordan sounded cool” πŸ™‚

    now, when I can order Grits in Amman, that would be scary… ahh…, grits!

  • There is a definite lack of Arab-speaking Americans who are willing to work for givernmental institutions in the US. Also in Iraq there’s a scandeolus lack of Arabic translators, and a lot of Arab-Americans are not willing to work for the CIA especially aftert the war in Iraq.

    These jobs are hot and they pay a lot of money. One of the main reasons one may chooose to go for them is the big salary and benefits, it’s not necessary that they’re pro-war or pro-Bush or even pro-government

  • As someone who is familiar with he folks you are talking about, my sense was that a lot of them were actually interested in humanitarian work–agricultural development, medical care, human rights–stuff like that.

    Not sure that it is so bad really. I don’t know a single one that went to work with the US gov’t–or any Western gov’t for that matter. In any case, wouldn’t it be good to have people working for the CIA who actually LIVED in the ME? But what MJWells said is true–which is sad, I think.

    hasab ra’i.

  • Not all of them!

    I will admit that I’m a pre-9/11 Arabic learner, and that I think there are slightly more post-9/11 learners who got into it to protect their country from “furners.” But: 1) Still not all of them, and I’m not even willing to argue “most” — certainly not most of those willing to live abroad and learn it there; and 2) even among those who *do* get into Arabic because they fear Muslims, there are going to be a sizable number who learn to love Arab culture and people in the course of their studies. Isn’t that a good thing?

  • i have bad news for you. this is interest is coming form intelligence agencies and not for the love of Arabic language or arab culture. the ongoing rate for a spy who speaks arabic and who is versed in arab “culture” is over 200,000 USD. of course spying is no longer limited to 007 stunts but now includes cyber & telecom surveillance and media monitoring and old fashioned “development” work. so next time you are tempted to hug an international student who is studying Arabic, think again. same for those naive muslims who are impressed by the sudden surge in converts to islam post 911. DUH!!

    Sometimes our nativity can be so freighting.

  • That’s an intersting discussion! Learning Arabic is not just getting famous in Jordan… it’s also getting more familiar in the states… I was in a roundtable few months back and an American who’s learning Arabic in the US argued with me ( I’m a pure Arab) about a meaning of a word. and she insisted that I didnt know the correct term! and that i’m mixing up between modern Arabic and ancient arabic!!!(What the hell is ancient and modern arabic??!!) and she told me ” Well, you don’t have masters in Modern Arabic like I do!!” She was arguing with me and another Jordanian until we both decided since she’s the one with the “Arabic Degree” lets end the discussion!!
    and now between us both we have this joke, whenver a term comes up from someone who we feel is slow we ask “was this modern or ancient arabic?!”
    for me… I respect whoever decides to learn through experience… learn language from the people because language isn’t about a degree or words , its about a whole culture, which you can never speak its language in a classroom! and btw, those who learn Arabic can work in MANY MANY MANY places in the US! They can work in Disney land as well πŸ˜› contrary to what some think, i think our language is impressive and it does sound like music , and its worth learning…. not just for a job agenda but its just enriching more than any other language….

  • Nas, George W. Bush initiated a program that allocates a lot of money for scholarships that go towards the studies of critical languages – Farsi, Arabic, and Chinese being on top of the list.

    Also, Middleburry College in the US has a highly acclaimed summer language program, and Arabic has the highest demand. We ran a piece about that in Venture. The business of teaching Arabic to foreigners here is booming, and Jordan is competing with places like Syria, Egypt, and Morocco… all of which have well-established programs.

    Over here, I’m thinking of making some money out of it myself, doing some Arabic for beginners classes or something πŸ™‚ the number of students in the journalism school interested in learning Arabic is very interesting!

  • I’m a fifth-year Arabic student, and I did in fact start out with some designs to work for the State Department…but after spending six months studying in the Middle East, talking to people and seeing the news from a different perspective I decided that the SD was no more innocent than the CIA or NSA, so I vowed never to work for any of them.

    Lina’s comment made me smile. Arabic is quite a cash cow these days. In fact, I studied at the Language Center at the University of Jordan for three months, and I concluded that it was mainly just that–a cash cow. The classes were overcrowded because anyone who could pay was let in, at any point in the semester, and very little homework was assigned or graded–probably because our teachers didn’t want to grade it (and probably they were underpaid to teach such a large class). It was my impression that unless they took great personal initiative to study, very few of the foreign students there came out any better at Arabic than they had been…so I wouldn’t actually worry about them being of much use to the American government.

  • Nas, you are inspiring a post for me with this topic. πŸ™‚

    Lina, an Arabic tutor in Chicago makes $35/hour. Fund your education! πŸ™‚

    In Central Illinois, rural corn country if there ever was, Chinese has replaced German and Arabic is probably going to replace French in the government school system.

  • I studied Arabic this summer in Jordan.

    From what I saw, a lot of the students had Arab parents so either they or their parents felt the need to be able so speak Arabic. Then there was students who came as part of University course back in the U.S and were interested in learning Arabic for various reasons such as becoming translators in Iraq.

    On seeing these students in Rainbow street, everyone from the Arabic program hung out in the same places! At a Ramallah underground gig over half the people there were students learning Arabic.

  • “poking fun of our conspiracy-theory state-of-minds.”
    You make it sound that Jordan is NOT both a center and a bridge for major activity for the CIA and American troops. The funny part is why bother recruit Arabic-speaking Americans when you have natives at the highest levels who are welling to volunteer for free (or sometimes charge as little as two million a year [Shadow:Bob Woodward])

  • Yes Rob, that is exactly how I made it sound.

    In fact, I get paid in the field of 1 million just to make it sound like that.

    I’m really that good

  • Man, Nas, you ARE good. A million? How do I get THAT job? It’s funny that you and El 3atal have the exact same reaction. And, I tend to wonder the same when I meet Americans here whose husbands got a “scholarship” from an American governmental institution (I can imagine the strings attached to that money). I have also studied Arabic in Jordan (although clearly not the main reason I’m here) and think it’s an awesome place to pick. People from everywhere understand that accent which is a huge bonus. But, even we Americans wonder some times…

  • Nas, imagine the security threat if all of those expats were carrying cameras! Now the CIA has Amman’s desperate and best kept secrets…spelling errors and all!

  • Don’t worry, I won’t join the CIA! I actually want to continue my Arab/Islamic studies in Grad school and then hopefully continue studying in Jordan (I’m currently studying at Villanova), from there who knows, maybe development projects or something πŸ™‚

  • Tanious: thanks for the video but it’s ironic that the message behind it is about tolerance, yet you don’t seem to be displaying any of it here. there’s no need to insult me just because you disagree with me.


  • Oh for cryin’ in the creek – is there anything American’s can do right?

    If people aren’t complaining that we’re a bunch of ignorant, one-language slugs – they’re complaining that we’re learning another culture to join the ranks of the CIA.

    Meanwhile, there continues to grow opportunities for outsourcing and trade between the Middle East and the U.S. that are greatly facilitated by both sides understanding the other better … but guess helping each other make a living is a bit too altruistic.

  • Hahaha. I get where you’re coming from… still, the type of douchebags that end up in that type of work are the Blind Patriots that view trips up to the mall in Edmonton, Canada as a Foreign Experience. I guess I felt like responding because I’m one of those “post-9/11” (i hate that term. it’s viewed as so pivotal, {may the 3,000 that died that day rest in peace} but isn’t it pivotal that over THREE MILLION [low estimate} are now dead in Iraq/Afghanistan as a result of a couple decades of sanctions/occupation/state-sponsored terrorism?!? may they rest in peace) reverts to Islam that wants to learn how to read the Qur’an.

  • OMG, I just actually READ the comments.

    za3eem, I don’t know where you live in this world, but as somebody who has lived the vast majority of my life inside the USA, I can tell you–before I left the country, I had never met a single Muslim. At least nobody that I knew was Muslim.

    No, seriously.

    I didn’t know the difference between Muslims/Islam. Seriously.

    Not that I want to be all self-deprecating by pointing this out, but I want people like yourself to know that, while your suspicion is justified, and can be used to keep you safe and aware, it can also be divisive. Islam just became the most practiced religion in the world, ahead of Roman Catholicism (17% to Islam’s 21%). So I just want you to know that the surge of reverts, in my opinion, has to do mainly with people hearing about Islam for the first time/having a reason to look into it.

Your Two Piasters: