- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

RAS AL KHAIMAH, United Arab Emirates — There’s a vague notion on this tiny satellite campus of George Mason University that basketball is played by bouncing a ball and tossing it toward a hoop. It’s also starting to sink in that classmates on the other side of the world have done something remarkable.

“Go, Mason, go,” yells 19-year-old Mohamed Eltigani, who was born in Sudan.

“Kun fi al-qimma,” campus receptionist Khawla Yousef screams in Arabic, which means “Reach the top.”

Welcome to the real Mideast regional.

Come Saturday — when George Mason resumes its improbable postseason run and meets Florida in the Final Four in Indianapolis — students and faculty on this campus by then, they hope, will have found some way to watch the game.

And there better not be any Gator fans passing through this remote mountain town, where large patches of rocks abound, and wild donkeys and camels roam.

The farfetched success of the Patriots caught many people by surprise, none more than those on George Mason’s UAE campus, where basketball is about as popular as cricket is in America. The university, too, is even less of a household name in these parts than in the States, and it doesn’t officially open its doors until September.

“Please win for us to make us popular,” said Ahmed Khalid, a 20-year-old Palestinian who grew up in Ras Al Khaimah.

George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, who has likened his Superman-slaying team to kryptonite, was intrigued to hear the UAE students were following the Patriots.

“You think when they’re reading it, they’re going to ask someone what kryptonite is?” Larranaga said from the school’s Fairfax campus yesterday. “Can you explain what kryptonite is in Arabic?”

The campus is 60 miles from Dubai and has just 31 students — many from Iraq, Syria and Iran — who study English in hopes of being admitted as freshmen in the fall.

“We are trying to generate some interest,” said Shaukat Mirza, the campus’ executive director, giving a tour of a campus garden, where iridescent green birds flitted among desert plants. “They are playing not exactly basketball, but football. I mean soccer.”

Mr. Mirza said he was blindsided by the team’s snowballing success, perhaps because he has focused on the grand opening of the campus, which sits on a stony plain where goats graze among acacia trees. “Until you called me, I was not aware of it,” he told the Associated Press.

Students’ knowledge of the game was slightly better. Mr. Eltigani was asked to name a basketball player. “Shaquille O’Neal,” the goateed student said with a grin. Any others? “There are some, but I can’t think of them,” he said.

Scott South, who teaches English at the school, figures the victory over Connecticut will serve another purpose as well.

“I printed out articles about it, and I plan to do a reading lesson with it,” he said.

Mr. Khalid, if he passes the entrance exam, will be eligible to study at the George Mason campuses in Virginia, as long as he can secure a U.S. visa. Given the chance, Mr. Khalid said he would try out for basketball.

“If they let me join the team, I’ll go there to study,” he said.

George Mason is one of a growing number of American colleges attractive to wealthy Arab countries on the Persian Gulf, where U.S. university education has long been coveted.

But after September 11, families have grown wary of sending children — especially daughters — to study in a U.S. atmosphere seen as increasingly anti-Arab. Instead, rulers in the Emirates and nearby Qatar have spent millions to lure some of the best American schools to build satellite campuses. The effort quickly succeeded.

Harvard is building a medical school in nearby Dubai, the most cosmopolitan of the UAE’s seven emirates. Georgetown is building a satellite campus in Qatar, alongside those already there: Cornell Medical School, Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M; and Virginia Commonwealth.

These days on campus, there’s a prominent bulletin board at the main building, where a story about the Connecticut victory is posted. There’s also a photo of Larranaga and players Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn. Another picture features George Mason fans cheering.

Butler was dumbfounded to learn George Mason even has a branch in UAE.

“That’s ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not,’” he said, “because I didn’t know that.”

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