This sleepy capital has long been a popular destination for foreigners who want to learn Arabic. Drawn by the charmingly well-preserved old city, an easily understood Arabic dialect and dirt cheap tuition prices subsidized by the government, thousands of foreign students enroll in language institutes here every year.

Some students are not Muslim; others are devoutly so, bent on deepening their Islamic faith during a year or two in Damascus.

The two drastically different pools of students intersect at the secular Arabic Teaching Institute for Non-Arabic Speakers, tucked away on a back street behind a row of embassies in the modern Mezze quarter.

Women in full niqab covering that reveals only their eyes mingle in the hallways with European students in form-fitting T-shirts and skirts. The institute is one of a handful that can sponsor foreign students for Syrian residency, so even deeply religious students who prefer to study in a more religiously observant environment, like the renowned Abu Noor mosque’s strict conservative school, must take some of their classes at the avowedly secular institute.

In a tightly controlled society whose government strictly limits foreign visitors, language study is a notable exception, an oasis of relative openness. Officially, the government has strained relations with America, but it also has long been hostile to Islamists. The foreign student roster, however, is crammed with both.

“We are ambassadors of sorts,” said Ahmad Haji Safar, the institute’s director. “The students who come here can take back a real image of Syria, not the caricature they see in the media.”

A trim 40-year-old who wears a stylishly tailored white suit with a black shirt, Mr. Safar looks as if he would be just as comfortable at a cafe in France — where he lived for 12 years — as behind the imposing desk where he receives students with a bowl of candy.

The director has brought with him from France decidedly modern ideas about education, and he has enthusiastically signed up with the education minister’s project to overhaul and modernize higher education in Syria. (MORE)


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