Three fully-funded places are available for young people to take part in Connecting Cultures in Oman in winter 2017-18. Any young people in Scotland aged 17-25 years old who are interested in this amazing opportunity should contact the organiser, Mark Evans MBE, on [email protected] to apply for one of the places. The deadline for applications is Saturday 4th November.

The University of the Desert

Mark Evans MBE is the Executive Director of Outward Bound Oman. He wrote this piece about the Connecting Cultures project in the autumn 2017 edition of The Geographer.

In 2005 I was working as a Geography teacher in Saudi Arabia. Becoming disillusioned with Western media coverage and its incongruence with my own experience of living in the Middle East, I set up ‘The University of the Desert’ in Oman, drawing on a quote from TE Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

“For the ordinary Arab, the hearth was a university, around which their world passed and where they heard the best talk, the news of their tribes, its poems, history, love tales, lawsuits and bargainings. By such constant sharing in the hearth councils, they grew up masters of expression, dialecticians, orators, able to sit with dignity in any gathering.”

A year later saw the start of the Connecting Cultures project, a proactive approach to bring together young people from different countries across Europe and the Middle East to learn about each other’s cultures, and take that learning back to their communities and forward in their lives.

Eighteen young people (all from different countries) arrive in Oman for five days in the desert. For around four hours every day, participants travel in pairs or small groups, ride camels and sometimes walk along to reflect on their learning thus far. Questions are provided, and afternoon workshops in the shade during the heat of the day focus on topics such as stereotypes, values, culture and community, media, dialogue, and world leadership. The course ends with a focus on personal action, contributions to local community, and how they can ‘do their bit’ to make the world a better place.

It is a simple model, but there are multiple complex processes at play, and measuring the impact of such a programme presents numerous methodological challenges.

Some 12 years after it started, the programme, now endorsed by UNESCO, continues to flourish, each winter involving three groups of inspirational young people aged between 17 and 25 years old.

One such person who saw the opportunity to challenge and develop himself was Kyle Ormiston, from Oban. Since high school, he has volunteered with Project Trust in southern Guyana, completed a course in sports coaching in outdoor adventure, and is currently volunteering in Canada. He aspires to study Environmental Geography and Outdoor Education in 2018.

“Prior to my involvement in Connecting Cultures, I was rather naïve about Islamic culture and the issues that are faced by the people at the other end of the media broadcasts. So when I first researched the Connecting Cultures programme in Oman, I was inherently interested. I recognized that what I knew about the Middle East was bound to be warped by popular media sources which seem to be focused on violence and distaste.

 “When I realized that I could gain first-hand interaction with, and wisdom from, other people my age who were living and breathing that culture, I instantly knew that this programme would fulfil my yearning for personal development. However, I could never have known the effect that it would have on me.

 “It taught me acceptance, and that in reality things are not so different there as they are in Scotland or any western culture. We are all people going through life looking for similar things from it. Also I feel now that I am more rounded, and have become a critical thinker, especially when hearing/reading any news story about Islamic culture. This is one of the biggest learning curves I had, and one that I feel needs to be at the forefront of my conversations with people back here in Scotland.

 “Furthermore, having the environment that we did (the Omani desert) was perhaps the biggest strength of the programme. The dust-filled winds instantly blow all other distractions away: no cars, no buildings, no screens – just a campfire with real people, real conversation and real learning.”