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A university in the desert

An entrance to a desert camp in the Wahiba sands An entrance to a desert camp in the Wahiba sands Wolfgang Zwanzger
20 Mar
Hermits and Bedouin have long sought wisdom and refuge in the desert. Today, young people from across the world can follow their example

It started with a letter to the Times  discussing the similarities between Western and Middle Eastern cultures.

‘I had lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, and knew it was different place to that the media portrayed,’ says Mark Evans, who had long taught geography in the region, eventually moving from Saudi Arabia to Oman.

Evans contacted the Saudi ambassador, and other officials in the region. These discussions led him to found Connecting Cultures, a sort of university in the desert which aims to bring together small groups of young people from across the world to discover what their cultures have in common.

‘It goes back to the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In the desert, a fire is a source of wisdom where all disputes and disagreements can be settled,’ says Evans.

Long, long discussions and debates are also a desert tradition.

‘Bedu notice everything and forget nothing. Garrulous by nature, they reminisce endlessly, whiling away with the chatter the long marching hours, and talking late into the night round their camp fires,’ observed Wilfred Thesiger, an RGS member who ranged over Oman’s Empty Quarter.

Connecting Cultures’ first event actually took place in Norway, but each event afterwards has avoided the northern cold to explore Oman’s Wahiba Sands.

So far, 275 young people aged 18–25 have been through the programme, with 17 journeys taken into the desert.

‘Each group will be made up of nine Europeans and nine people drawn from the Middle East,’ says Evans. All are strangers at the start, picked through each nation’s UNESCO organisation.

Mobile phones are banned for the group’s five-day expedition by foot and camel. At lunchtime breaks, the group establishes a shelter and gets down to discussions and debate.

‘The one question that always stimulates the greatest debate is “Is the West the best?”,’ says Evans. ‘Also popular is whether the media is to blame for cultural misunderstandings.’

The Wahiba Sands is a big slice of the Omani desert, covering 15,000km2. It was the focus for a major RGS study in the late 1980s. ‘Its position and size lend it perfectly to field research, simply because it can be studied as a complete unit,’ notes the RGS report.

But not everything that happens in Wahiba Sands is as strictly educational, or meditative, as the Connecting Cultures programme.

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