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

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

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

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...

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...

Mountains

Trivia fans take note, Mount Hope in the British Antarctic…

Water

An enormous hydropower development in Ethiopia is expected to put…

Mapping

From nuclear warnings to whether your favourite band will ‘make…

Mapping

New maps of global reptile distribution reveal significant gaps in…

Forests

Indigenous conservation schemes in Peru can be more effective than…

Mapping

How are the EU member nations faring in the fight…

Mapping

Violence against women violates human rights, and the lack of…

Cities

Deadly heat waves could become more frequent in cities thanks…

Mapping

These 13 poignant infographics are in the running for the…

Mapping

Sometimes referred to as the fourth dimension, time has a…

Forests

A global, citizen-led carbon sequestration scheme is aiming to combat…

Mountains

Among the Himalaya region, which along with most of the…

Cities

Beijing looks set to welcome to its streets an innovative…

Cities

The next step towards declaring London a National Park City…

Mapping

The spatial distribution of healthcare workers globally tells us a…

Forests

After an ‘unprecedented’ surge northwards into New Jersey, New York…

Forests

The historic end of civil war in Colombia has had…

Mapping

Where in America can the country's various hate groups be…

Water

The southern US state is sinking twice as fast as…

Cities

An increase in visitors is putting severe strain on Iceland’s…