JIT AGAINST of Fahad Subeihi’s falafel stand is piled high with heaps of sliced tomatoes, onions and pink-dyed pickled turnips. “The students love it,” he says. Mr. Subeihi’s stand is located in the Jabal Amman district of the Jordanian capital, Amman, amidst a crowd of Arabic-speaking schools. Mr. Subeihi estimates that before the pandemic, half of his customers were foreigners, mostly Western students.
Jordan has cornered the Arabic language training market in the region. Unlike many of its neighbours, it is relatively stable and at peace. Its nickname, the “Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom”, may put off thrill seekers. But it attracts 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 French Institute of the Near East (IFPO), which mainly hosts European students. IFPO had centers in Aleppo and Damascus, but closed them because of the civil war in Syria. It still has a center in Beirut, Lebanon’s unruly capital, but schools are increasingly wary of 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. Jordan’s, on the other hand, is close to the Modern Standard Arabic taught in most Western classrooms.
“I feel like Amman has a monopoly on American Arabic-speaking students,” says Patrick, who studied Arabic on a scholarship from Boren, 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 deems critical to national security.) Boren scholarship students may not train in countries for which the Department of State has issued travel advisories of high level, which have become common during the pandemic. Even before, however, the rule meant almost all of Jordan’s neighbors were out of luck.
The pandemic has reduced the number of Arabic-speaking students traveling to the region, so Jordan has been particularly hard hit. Katy Whiting of the Sijal Institute, an Arabic language school in Jabal Amman, says normally more than 200 students would be enrolled at 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, drew a steady crowd of Western students. Now it is largely empty. Still, he is confident that the students will return. “They want safety, security and to 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 perks”