Learning Arabic never featured high on the agenda for Zoe, that is, until September 11 happened. Zoe comes from an artistic family in France.
In high school, she had been involved in circus and theatre. Her ambition had been to become a trapeze artiste. However, that changed with circumstances.
On that fateful day in 2001, Zoe was in her apartment in Paris. Her best friend broke the news to her. She told her that the twin towers in New York, which they had visited together when they were younger, were no more. For some reason, the immensity of the event did not hit her immediately. Then, slowly, it all began to sink in.
As time went by, Zoe began to read more newspapers and her political consciousness began to awaken.
“After September 11, everybody was talking about the clash of the civilisations and how Islam was the religion which attacks others,'' she recalled. “I think people got interested in what Islam was and what it meant to be a Muslim. People were reading the Quran and trying to understand.''
No longer driven by the thought of spending her evenings lounging in bars, Zoe took up political studies. She ended up spending one year in Morocco learning the local Arabic dialect.
This was followed by a year in Tunisia, where she went on to learn the local dialect. Though not completely fluent in the language, she knows enough to get by. “If I go to the market there, I can handle it,'' she says.
Zoe is not alone in her quest to learn Arabic. Many young people are looking beyond the traditional European languages on offer — such as French and German — and are turning to more exotic options. In fact, there has been a noticeable growth in interest not just in the Arabic language but towards the Middle East in general.
In the United Kingdom, courses which come under the category of Modern Middle East Studies reported a 25 per cent rise in applications for 2007 compared to 2003, according to Universities and Colleges Admissions Services (UCAS).
Further, a spokesperson for Linguaphone, a company specialising in self-learning CDs and books for foreign languages, confirmed that sales for Arabic learning material have been on the rise in recent years. Exact figures , however, are unavailable.
At London's City University, Arabic-language courses have successfully been run since 2004, when they were introduced there. Over this period, there has been a more than 100 per cent rise in the number of students enrolling on the course.
Pascale Colonna is the languages coordinator for adult courses at City University and the one who introduced Arabic there. She said strong market demand motivated her to start Arabic classes.
“I think people want to learn a language when there is an interest in a particular culture and the media talks about it,'' she said.
One of the language teachers at City University is Nora Allali. She has been teaching Arabic for ten years and confirms that the number of students wishing to learn the language has witnessed a dramatic rise in recent years.
“I think it is a global thing,'' Nora said. “Particularly in what is happening politically in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. The popularity of languages, for something such as Arabic, is linked to current affairs and what is happening around the world.''
She confesses that demand for learning Arabic is so great that the institute is struggling to meet it.
However, the trend to learn Arabic is not just linked to September 11 and the war in Iraq. Nora points to other factors which have contributed to generating people's interest in Arabic.
Several of her students are solicitors and bankers who plan to travel to places such as Dubai. Others are polishing their linguistic skills as the prelude to a backpacker's trip to the Arabic-speaking world. Still others are employed in the charity sector.
Indeed, in Zoe's case, factors other than September 11 also played a role in her decision. Before she was born, her parents lived in Morocco for a time.
Added to that was the fact that France is home to a large numbers of immigrants from North Africa and also has strong links to the region's colonial past. “It's a social issue in France as well,'' Zoe confides.
Dr Otared Haider is a specialist in Arabic literature and journalism at Oxford University's Oriental Institute. She believes the trend towards Arabic has strong historic roots and cannot be considered just a passing phenomenon.
Mirroring the media
“Arabic contributed to European civilisation as much as the Romans and the Greeks,'' she said. “Europe has always interacted with the Arab world, which is considered to be like south Europe. Maybe there is some increase but in Oxford it was always popular because the Arabic department is very famous.''
Arabic is a particularly useful language to know for Western journalists and reporters who plan to work from the region. With the BBC launching its new Arabic-language television on March 11, the appetite for Arabic-language speakers in the media appears greater than ever. The corporation's Arabic service has 250 people who speak the language.
This does not include those Arabic-speaking BBC employees who are scattered across its various departments around the world .
“The key thing is that we are responding to the way the Arabic-speaking world is changing,'' said Mike Gardner, head of media relations at the BBC World Service. “Arabic is extremely important for the organisation [BBC]. [Arabic speaking people form] a large part of our audience. Arabic is the largest non-English language service that we have in the BBC, so it is one of our priorities.''
A case in point is journalism student Harriet Alexander. She recently took up classes at her university and is getting to know the nuances of the language. Learning Arabic is a way for Harriet to realise her career goals.
“I would love to be able to go to the Middle East and be able to work there,'' she said. “My ultimate aim is to be able to function as a journalist there. I want to be able to do interviews — to talk to people and ask them what they think about things.''
One of those rare Britons fluent in more than just English, Harriet speaks French and Spanish as well. Her impressive knowledge of languages has helped her understand the connection between Arabic and the European languages. For instance, the word for beans in Arabic is lubia and in Spanish it is alubia.
In fact, for Harriet, one unique benefit of learning Arabic is that she has finally begun to understand the meaning behind words she hears in the news all the time. “Madrassa obviously means school and I have never really put two and two together,'' she explains. “Taliba means student as in the Taliban and medina means city.''
Curiously, British security personnel are also keen to tap into the market for Arabic speakers.
Nora revealed that she has had students who are police officers or employed by what was until recently known as the UK's National Criminal Intelligence Services.
“I get a few people who work for MPs as well,'' she said. “Lots of people working for the government, they never tell you what they do. They are ‘civil servants'.''
Indeed, one slightly suspicious British student, Brendan, did introduce himself as a “civil servant''. Brendan's true identity is shrouded in mystery — for the purposes of this article, he neither supplied his second name nor agreed to have his photograph taken. He is learning the language for various reasons but denied any of them were linked to his present job.
Brendan is fascinated by the political and economic climate of the Middle East and hopes to visit some of the Arabic-speaking countries in the future. When asked whether he works as a spy, he replied in the negative and laughed: “Even if I was, I wouldn't say yes, would I?''
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.