AMMAN, Jordan - Young Americans studying Arabic like to joke that Jordan is "Middle East Lite" — a safe way into a tumultuous region without Lebanon's violence, Syria's tense relationship with the U.S. or the Gulf's conservative culture.
Drawn by that reputation, an increasing number of Americans interested in Arabic have been flocking to Jordan.
The capital, Amman, lacks much of the history and color that attract Americans to Cairo, the most popular destination for foreign students who want to learn Arabic. But Amman comes without the air pollution and crowds that plague Egypt's capital. It also feels more Western with its clean streets and numerous American shops and fast-food restaurants.
"I've traveled to Morocco but not to the heart of the Middle East, and Jordan was that good entry point," said Liza Hester, an Arabic student from Maine's Colby College.
She speculated that places like Egypt and Yemen would be more difficult to navigate and said her college would not give her credit for Arabic classes taken in countries on the U.S. State Department's travel advisory list, such as Syria and Lebanon.
Jordan, perhaps best known as home of the ancient red rock city of Petra, has generally been safe for foreigners despite an occasional flare-up in violence. A Palestinian gunman wounded six people outside a popular Roman amphitheater in Amman earlier this summer, while triple hotel blasts claimed by al-Qaida in Iraq killed 63 people in 2005.
But such attacks have done little to damage Jordan's image as a placid island of stability.
Amman has also become a doorstep to neighboring Iraq: Construction has boomed with Iraqi investments and Iraqi refugees have flooded in. Westerners traveling to Baghdad or using the Jordanian capital as a base for operations in the wartorn country are also common.
Still, Amman remains far sleepier than other Arab capitals.
"Amman is like the Kansas City of the Middle East," Kelly Nau, a 26-year-old Los Angeles native who came to Jordan to work as a nurse, said between puffs from a waterpipe at one of the city's stylish cafes.
It may not have the "allure of Damascus, Beirut or Jerusalem," but, Nau adds: "It is stable."
More than 300 Americans are expected to study Arabic at the University of Jordan in the fall, making up over half of this year's class of 600 students.
The size of the program has tripled since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, said Tawfiq Omar, the academic adviser for foreigners learning Arabic at the university.
It is the largest of more than 30 Arabic language programs offered in Jordan. Many charge about $2,000 per year in tuition — less than the cost of many programs in countries like Egypt and Syria, which have also seen an increase in Arabic language students from the U.S. since the 2001 attacks.
For some, the cheap tuition means money left over to party in Amman's nightclubs and Irish pubs. Others get jobs waiting tables in the city's restaurants or write English speeches for Jordanian officials to pay the bills.
Jordan's moderate government has encouraged Americans to visit the country, hoping the exchange will reduce misconceptions about the Middle East. The country's youthful Queen Rania launched a Web site on YouTube earlier this year devoted to breaking down negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.
"I want the people to know the real Arab world, unedited, unscripted, unfiltered," said the queen in one of her videos.
The Jordanian government's moderate politics has made the country a sort of diplomatic "Middle East Lite" for the U.S. as well.
Jordan, which signed a peace deal with Israel in 1994, is one of America's most reliable allies in the region and rarely adopts controversial positions on issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian crisis or the Iraq war.
A large number of Jordanians in Amman speak at least a little English, which makes the transition easier for Americans who come to the country to learn Arabic for the first time. Also, many signs in the country are posted in both English and Arabic.
Even the country's summer weather is fairly moderate, a rarity in a region where temperatures regularly soar above 100 degrees Fahreinheit.
"The lovely climate is the main reason I came here. But the people are also very welcoming," said Mariam Shaheed, a Texas native who came to Amman over the summer to improve her Arabic.
From Yahoo News "An AP report"