BEIRUT — When Amtissal signed up to learn Arabic in Beirut, she was in for a bonus: class trips to the offices of Hezbollah and Hamas, both classified as terrorist organisations by her native America.
"It was an amazing experience," the US media studies graduate told AFP. "We saw the difference between television and reality."
Dozens of students from around the globe have joined the Beirut Exchange, a two-week programme that offers a crash course in the Arabic language and brings participants face-to-face with prominent political, academic and economic leaders in the Middle East.
"Some students coming from Denver, Colorado have never been to the Middle East," said project coordinator Nicholas Noe.
"They are studying Middle East security issues, get off a plane in Beirut and Damascus, and within a day they get to meet some of the people they have been studying, some of whom are considered the worst people in the world."
The programme, launched in 2008, is hosted twice annually by mideastwire.com, a website that specialises in translating articles in regional newspapers from Arabic to English.
In addition to the Beirut Exchange, the Damascus Exchange and the Istanbul-Ankara Exchange, hosted in nearby Syria and Turkey, are rapidly gaining popularity.
Noe has also begun talks with the University of Tehran to launch a similar programme in Iran.
In Lebanon, the programme offers students the chance to meet Oussama Hamdan, the Lebanon representative of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, and Ammar Mussawi, international relations officer of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
US law prohibits its citizens from providing material support to both movements but not from meeting members of the two radical groups.
For 21-year-old Andrew Waller, the Beirut Exchange was a golden opportunity to hear the voices of groups he had only read about.
"Meeting Hezbollah was an experience I really treasure," said Waller, an economics student at the University of Exeter in Britain.
"I have long been interested in the Middle East, but up until the exchange my contact with the region had been purely academic," he told AFP by email.
"I felt incredibly lucky. The access we had was unbelievable."
The programme spans the Lebanese political spectrum, and while Hezbollah and Hamas members remain the uncontested stars, students also meet some of Lebanon's pro-Western politicians, such as Christian leader Samir Geagea, as well as US embassy officials.
"The propaganda aspect is taken care of by having different voices" represented, Noe told AFP.
But he is fully aware his project tips the balance towards parties with explicitly anti-American policies.
"If one thing is going to be misleading, or a lie, or propaganda, it is still interesting for sophisticated students who come from top universities around the world," Noe said.
"They come very well-informed, so they avoid polemic questions like 'Why do you hate Jews?,'" Noe added.
"Instead, we get questions such as 'What is Hamas's' economic programme?' and 'How does your movement relate to non-Islamic peoples?.'"
For student Sajjad Dewji, a political science major at the University of British Columbia in Canada, the most memorable experience was a visit to a rundown Palestinian refugee camp.
"While the subject ... has been one that many of us would have discussed academically ... visiting the Palestinian camps was a very emotional and eye-opening experience," said the 21-year-old Vancouver resident.
Lebanon is home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who are crammed into a dozen destitute camps across the country.
"Interacting with the refugees and hearing their stories tied us to the Palestinian cause and we began to understand first-hand the feelings and sentiments of the Palestinians," Dewji said.
"You don't know how they really live until you are there," added Amtissal.
In addition to daily Arabic classes and visits to local policy-makers, students can also take a trip down to the Lebanese-Israeli border, where they can chat with officials of a UN peacekeeping force and visit Hezbollah's "jihadi tourism" park.
And while many remain far from won over by the anti-Americanism of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, some Beirut Exchange students say the chance to hear their arguments has opened their eyes to the bias of mainstream Western media.
"Often what is portrayed in the media is a very narrow, simplistic and restricted narrative that fails to capture the complexity and context of political happenings in Lebanon and the Middle East in general," said Dewji.
Waller agreed: "The image projected in the West is certainly not balanced and the focus is very much on the militant side, not the welfare position."
Hezbollah, the most powerful military and political force in Lebanon, commands popular support among the local Shiite Muslim community not least through its generous social programmes.
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