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
2015
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.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Leave a comment

ONLY registered members can leave comments and each comment is held pending authorisation before publishing. Please login or register to voice your opinion.

EMAIL NEWSLETTER

Get the best stories from Geographical delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    Long live the King
    It is barely half a century since the Born Free story caused the world to re-evaluate humanity’s relationship with lions. A few brief decades later,...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital has a green future, ...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...

Water

Following the recent success of New Zealand’s Whanganui river, India’s…

Forests

The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)…

Mapping

Where are Europe's earthquakes located? Benjamin Hennig maps the answer

Forests

Was last year’s El Niño a practice run for future…

Forests

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Mapping

Drought in the region is turning to full famine –…

Water

After decades of neglect, a major clean-up of Lake Titicaca…

Forests

What was once one of Botswana’s most iconic pieces of…

Forests

The world’s largest tropical peatland carbon store has been mapped…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig visualises how the world has moved to the…

Cities

They have been in place for nearly a decade, but…

Cities

As Paris continues to combat its severe air pollution problem,…

Mapping

Which are the world's happiest countries? Benjamin Hennig maps the…

Mapping

New Zealand, Australia, and other former British colonies among the…

Cities

Thirty years ago, the world bore witness to one of…

Mapping

From the clothes you are wearing, to the shoes on…

Mapping

As Geographical takes a look at the geopolitical state of…

Mapping

New 3D maps reveal the extent of a near-invisible threat:…

Mapping

A stunning interactive map shows a year in the life…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig gets to grips with the increasingly globalised world…