Yemen – The forlorn nine-floor building made of ochre bricks and gypsum stands against the Old City’s sun kissed mountains in the heart of Sanaa. As you enter the classroom, desks and computers are covered in centimetres of dust.
Books and journals belonging to former students are strewn on shelves. The refrigerator is filled with food in pots layered with fungi, a possible sign that the students escaped hurriedly during the fighting last September.
“There is no one in the building,” Abdulhabeeb, the security guard said.
Students started to evacuate the Centre for Arabic Language and Eastern studies (CALES) after the Houthis or Ansar Allah (Partisans of God) took over Amran city in July, located just 60km north of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, fearing airport closures and further unrest amid the Houthi rebels’ uprising.
Under the Islah-run University of Science and Technology, the language institute for non-Arabic speakers still struggles to attract new students after the Houthis took over the capital on September 21.
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Neighbours and shop owners outside the university building recall fond memories of day-trips and visits to their homes from foreign students before the fighting.
“We can’t travel outside because of our circumstances, but through the university, the world would come to us. I was able to learn a bit of English and understand their world, but ‘inshallah’ it will change soon,” said Mohammed Zurqa, who lives nearby with his family of eight.
Now, the only testimony to a once flourishing campus is the fading chrome-coloured photo frames on the walls.
“The Houthis are a part of the government, but there is no change,” said Abdulfatah Shamsan, Director of CALES.
Foreign students create jobs for our people and contribute to local shop owners, souqs, restaurants and hotels. When students were here they would invite their friends and family to visit, obviously this has affected our economy.
Shamsan said that the university had been seeing a decline in numbers since the start of the revolution in 2011, but for the first time since its opening in 1996, in October it didn’t have any students.
The cost of running the institute is roughly $36,000 per year. Shamsan said the university makes less than half the required amount per month with only two students, and online distance learning programmes.
For Dr Steve Caton, a former Harvard University professor, who designed the Contemporary Middle East Studies programme at the Yemen College of Middle Eastern studies (YCMES), the latest revelations don’t surprise him. “None of the institutes have an endowment, they all depend on tuition for their revenue streams and so they are in dire straits.”
CALES is not the only university that has been affected by the persistent political crisis. Yemen Institute of Arabic Learning (YIAL), in the same locality put its building up for rent and moved to a smaller building.
YIAL started to feel the pinch as early as 2009, even before the revolution. A YIAL spokesperson said that this has not only impacted Arabic institutes in the capital, but also tourism and small businesses.
Ghalib Hizam, who teaches part-time at CALES and at another school, and is employed by the Yemeni government said: “Foreign students create jobs for our people and contribute to local shop owners, souqs, restaurants and hotels.”
“When students were here, they would invite their friends and family to visit, obviously this has affected our economy.”
To substitute for the shortage of students, many professors teach online. But teachers admit it’s not easy. “Sometimes this is a challenge given the constant power cuts, poor internet connection and fluctuating prices of diesel and oil for generators,” said Hizam.
The female professors have been hit harder due to a shortage of female foreign students. “All of us, we lost hope and we sit at home,” said Lamees Al-Odaini, an Arabic professor who has been out of work since April.
“With every passing year since 2011, we are preparing for something worse.”
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Apart from the financial damage that has beset the plunging economy, Caton believes the Arabic language is crucial to understanding Yemen and the wider Middle East and is needed “more urgently than ever before”.
When asked about the government’s initiative to protect language schools for international students, Fuad Ahmed, spokesperson from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research agreed that security is a concern, but said that contrary to popular belief, several Koreans live in the city.
“We are working with the departments responsible to improve this, but the security situation is not entirely in our hands.”
But, Shamsan is unconvinced and accuses the ministry of being oblivious to their circumstances. “They only care about the money at the time of license renewal.”
|Apart from the economical and financial implications of this, understanding of the Arabic language is also essential to understanding Yemen [Al Jazeera]|
At the same time, the dwindling number of students in Arabic language schools is not restricted to Yemen, but other places of unrest such as Cairo and Damascus.
“When I speak to Americans about what’s happening in the Middle East, they tend to blame Middle Easterners for being unable to ‘get along’ and seem blind to the ways in which Euro-American policies in the region are a large part of the problem.”
While the Arabic professors and local institutions in the capital have relinquished hope, Ahmed is positive that the new government will affect a change in the security situation.
For Caton, the onus is not just on Yemenis “getting their act together”, it is also on western governments.
“I am not sanguine about the immediate future of Arabic language studies in Yemen, not until the drone programme is stopped and western countries get really serious about helping Yemen to reconstruct, instead of focusing narrowly on terrorists.”
“Nothing in the pronouncements of any of those governments makes me think that such vision or leadership exists.”