Connecting Cultures In The Arabian Desert
Desert and polar explorer Mark Evans has led expeditions across the frozen Arctic, and the scorching sands of the Middle East – he now harnesses the timeless power of the desert to draw people and cultures closer together
The deserts of the Middle East and the frozen tundra of the Arctic are geographically opposed yet, for explorer and wilderness advocate Mark Evans, surprisingly similar. Drawn to the unique silence, isolation and raw power of both, Evans spent his twenties exploring the world of ice and snow, but has since swapped snowshoes for sandals, working and traveling extensively across the Arabian peninsula.
Epic expeditions aside – including a 49-day crossing of the Rub Al Khali and a 55-day, 1,700km solo kayak journey from UAE to Yemen – Evans’ work as Executive Director of Outward Bound Oman involves the use of outdoor adventure to help others realise their true potential. Similarly, it was his belief in the power of the desert that encouraged him, in 2004, to found Connecting Cultures.
Each winter, he leads a series of five-day expeditions with eighteen young people (half from the Middle East region, and half from elsewhere) into the distraction-free environment of the desert with the aim of encouraging open debate and intercultural dialogue. But what makes the desert so powerful? And why has Evans chosen to make the Middle East his home?
The desert is such a timeless, simple, raw and powerful environment
Q: You set up Connecting Cultures in 2004 – what was your aim?
A: ‘My father died when I was working as a geography teacher in Saudi Arabia, so I went back to the UK. I was amazed at the things I was reading in the media about the Middle East, written by people who have never been here. They were saying things that couldn't be further from my experiences. Then I saw a letter in The Times and The Guardian written by Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in London – a fantastic man – and he basically said, stop bashing us over our head; we want to progress as a country and as a society, but we have to do so in a way that is achievable for a culture.’
‘I wrote him a letter just saying, look, not all Brits have a negative impression of the country – I have had a wonderful experience living there. Then he invited me for coffee at the UN embassy in London. He said, “What can we do to change people’s perceptions of the Middle East?” That's when I read this quote from T.E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars Of Wisdom about the “university of the desert” and we came up with this concept of people sitting around a fire – the oldest university on Earth – and that was how it all started.’
‘The first journey took place in 2004/ 2005 and now it’s supported by Oman, which is the most appropriate country in terms of its tolerance to open dialogue, and we now run three five-day long desert journeys every winter. We select young people from 18 different nations – we have one group out there right now – and I would say that in 21 years of teaching those five days are the most productive thing I've ever seen educationally. It's quite extraordinary.’
Q: What is it about the desert that you think makes for a unifying environment?
A: ‘The simplicity and lack of distractions in the desert makes for the perfect learning environment. As soon as the sun goes down it starts to cool instantly and we could sit around the fire all night: talking about issues, sharing examples of what can be done and inspiring stories of change. It’s only five days, but the contact hours each day are six until 10 or 11 at night and it's pretty much continued, unbroken dialogue in that time – it's fantastic.’
Words: Issac Williams