People learn Arabic for various reasons - for work, for travel or to better understand the Islamic faith. For fresh university graduates Jeff Lam Wai-wai and Vincent Choi Wing-sang, studying Arabic offered a valuable chance to better understand the Islamic world and the rich culture and history of the Middle East. Lam, who graduated in Chinese language and literature, and fine arts at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), also decided to take a three-year Arabic programme because of his interest in the Arab world. 'The Middle East is a kind of mystery to many of us. What we know about the countries and people there is very limited. I am really keen to learn more about the Arab world and its people,' he said. For Choi, his fascination with Arab culture dates back to secondary school when he read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence's autobiographical account of his experiences in the Middle East. His interest in the Middle East history and Islamic culture grew from there. 'I love Islamic culture very much. That is why I pursued a minor in Arabic language at university,' he said. HKU is the only university in Hong Kong where students can minor in Arabic. The Arabic programme was launched in 2004 with assistance from the Saudi Arabian and Egyptian consulates. A major start-up donation came from Saad al-Rashid of the Al-Rashid Group. Learning Arabic seems daunting as it has an entirely different alphabet, unusual sounds and letters, and you read and write from right to left. Lam said it was quite difficult to pick up the language because most Arabic letters can take a different form, depending on where in a word they fall. But what frustrated him most was the lack of adequate Arabic materials and resources in the university and elsewhere in Hong Kong. 'We have only a single professor to teach the programme. There is no student exchange or overseas study opportunities for us learning Arabic, unlike other mainstream foreign language programmes in the university,' Lam said. 'Hong Kong is such an international financial centre and has indicated interest in promoting Islamic finance. The government has invested so much in education, but the assistance is far too little to students learning Arabic or the Islamic culture. We had to make all our own efforts to be able to get an Arabic study experience in the Middle East.' Lam and Choi independently took part in a three-month Arabic course in Yemen and Egypt this summer - right before their graduation - and were thrilled by the experience of learning Arabic and meeting people in the Middle East. Lam said many people had a misconception that people in the Islamic world tended to have hardened views on Middle Eastern politics. 'They are actually very kind and friendly people. You feel a kind of peacefulness once you are there. I have gained a lot from the learning experience in the Middle East and found that the Islamic world is not a place of particular danger,' he said. Choi said the study trip turned out to be the most impressive part of his Arabic learning. 'The experience of living and learning in the Arab world, as well as meeting people and making friends there, is just incredible,' he said. 'It is also a great way to get to know the culture. 'We attended many local weddings in Yemen. People there organise wedding ceremonies on a street and like to invite foreigners to join them. We learned later that it is a local belief that having foreign guests will be a blessing to their wedding.' The two graduates expressed special thanks to Dr Joseph Levi, director of the language centre at HKU's school of modern languages and cultures, for providing valuable support to their Arabic learning over the past year and helping them with their study trip to the Middle East. Levi, who began his duties with the university in September last year, believes it is important that more Hong Kong and mainland students learn Arabic. Beijing was building its relationship with the Middle East and Africa, making it an important language to learn for the new generation, he said. 'It will be a good asset if Hong Kong and mainland students learn Arabic,' Levi said. 'Those who have a good command of Arabic will have an advantage in career development.' Levi, who helped enrich the university's Arabic programme with the addition of new courses on African Islam and an introduction to Islam, said more resources should be allocated to Arabic learning, such as strengthening the teaching staff and establishing a library with Arabic and Islamic reference materials. Choi, who is interested in pursuing further studies in Arabic, agreed that there was an acute shortage of information and materials for Arabic or Islamic learning in Hong Kong. 'We need more government support for Islamic or Arabic learning,' he said. 'From the commercial and cultural perspectives, Arabic is going to be more and more important in the years to come. 'Buildings are getting taller and taller in the Middle East and there are good business and commercial opportunities in these countries. 'Arabic has a good future in terms of career development. Anyone who knows Arabic will have a great advantage.'