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Thursday, December 13, 2007 

Syria asks Iranian ambassador to leave

According to somewhat dubious sources, Syria has asked the Iranian ambassador to leave.

They have requested that Iran send a new envoy, because Mohammad Hassan Akhtari is interfering in internal affairs. Tehran asked for Akhtari's stay to be extended, and Syria has refused. He has been given two months to leave.

The Cultural Attache has also been told to go.

Could this be a sign of Syria gently leaving the Iranian fold, and moving closer to America.

It comes just two weeks after Syria attended the Annapolis peace conference organised by the US. Iran harshly criticised anyone who went. It is one of the first times Syria and Iran have publicly disagreed in recent years, and led to urgent discussions between the two countries.

Despite politics, many foreigners — Americans included — choose Syria to learn Arabic

By Zeina Karam

DAMASCUS, Syria — It may seem like an unlikely place for students from the U.S. or Europe, but Syria has been rapidly gaining ground as a destination for foreigners who wish to learn Arabic.

Syrians point to the young foreigners in the capital as proof that their country — which is on the U.S. list of state supporters of terrorism — is not the closed, anti-American rogue nation often depicted in Western media.

The market for learning Arabic could flourish even more if ties between Syria and the U.S. warm following Syria's presence at last month's Mideast peace conference in Annapolis, Md.Advertisement
U.S.-Syrian political wrangling "doesn't concern me, I'm here to learn Arabic and this is what I'm doing," said Alexander Magidow, a 23-year-old student from Minnesota. "I like living here, it's easy to meet people, the people in general are very friendly and helpful."

Magidow arrived in June as part of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program funded by the U.S. Department of Education. He has lived elsewhere in the Mideast and brushes off the stormy politics, though it once worried his family.

"After a year in Jordan, my mom sort of calmed down and wasn't concerned about it anymore," he grinned.

The Center for Arabic Study Abroad, which has long had a program in Cairo, Egypt, opened its first full-year program at Damascus University this year, with eight students — joining other institutes that draw in several thousand foreigners per year.

Arabic studies have generally increased along with the West's interest in the Middle East since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. The U.S. military and other institutions are seeking more Arabic speakers because of the war on terrorism. Muslim converts or Muslims from non-Arabic-speaking countries are also trying to learn the language of the Quran, Islam's holy book.

Egypt, a U.S. ally that is more open to the West, remains the biggest draw for foreign students, with thousands studying at the American University in Cairo and smaller private centers. Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon's American University in Beirut also have programs. But Damascus is seeing a growing demand.

Syria has gradually been opening up to foreign businesses, meaning more foreign workers who want to know the local language. But the main reason is simply the discovery that Syria is an option despite the tensions with the West.

The U.S. has accused Damascus of supporting terror for its backing of Hezbollah, Hamas and other militant groups. President Bashar Assad's regime has been accused of human rights abuses, but that has little direct effect on foreign visitors.

"I often get letters from graduates who tell me how much their image of Syria changed after living here," said Ahmad Haji Safar, director of the Arabic Teaching Institute for non-Arabic Speakers. "They become our ambassadors," he said.

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