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'This place is like home'

With a camera tailing them over 12 days, nine British students travel through the UAE and Oman, making a reality show of their cultural experiences for an audience in the UK and the Middle East. Sara Saleh met them during the Dubai leg of their journey.

Image Credit:Asghar Khan/Gulf News
Fahad Paruez says that having heard so much about Dubai, it has passed all his expectations. He and his friends tour the Shaikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding in Bastakia, Dubai.

Modern, glossy buildings sitting by the bustling creek side, honking cars in a sea of never-ending traffic and a restless, always on-the-go attitude in the air… but where else would it be seen as nothing unusual to be sitting under a Bedouin tent, sipping on traditional bitter tasting Arabic coffee and petting eagles in the middle of such modernised trends?

Only in Dubai, of course!

That's what nine British students on a 12-day expedition through the UAE and Oman have found out.

Their journey was organised by the Offscreen Education Programme and the British Council.

Arriving at my scheduled interview on the student's fourth and last day in the city, I was amazed to find them relaxing in the shade of the tent on the grounds of the Shaikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding.

Reality TV

With an effortless rapport, this perfectly handpicked group of young individuals were sharing inside jokes, passing around photos and enthusiastically practising their 'shokran's' (Arabic for thank you) and 'ma'a as-salama's' (good- bye) — all the while being tailed by a cameraman filming their every move.

Reminiscent of the currently popular reality TV show, the objective of this pioneering, documented journey is to inspire other youngsters back in the UK to better understand the culture, by producing artistic records of the students' travelling experiences.

Using the latest satellite communications technology, the artistic media the students create that include videos, photos, artworks and web diary blogs, will be beamed back to an estimated 3 million individuals across the UK and the Middle East — taking the audiences 'off screen' throughout the journey.

Travelling artists

Before talking to the students about the trip, I decided to approach Stephen Stapleton, who founded Offscreen four years ago after coming to the Middle East.

Complete with Arab headgear (the ubiquitous black-and-white chequered ghatra), Stephen earnestly dived into a heart-to-heart about what can only be called his absolute passion for the programme.

"I realised young people are thirsty for information on the Middle East, and I found myself morphing into a teacher, trying to get the students' interests and give them the same chance I had as a travelling artist creating a portrait of my journey," Stephen said.

"Students can then use this as a way to talk back to their peers because they are much better listening to each other and learning from each other's work than listening and learning from us teachers."

Living a culture

Wearing the national dress of the country and eating, talking and dancing with its local students, the British group believe the trip is a valuable opportunity to understand what it's like to be a young person here.

At the core of this journey is the desire of the British students to interact with and fully live the culture, not just faintly encounter it from afar.

The art is what brought 15-year-old Julson Delishaj over, but the whole trip has turned out to be so much more than what he expected.

"Everything about this place is amazing — art is everywhere," said Jason, " and all these traditional activities are part of the experience, so you know what's waiting for you next time."

Unlike anything they had ever experienced before, the students were more than ready to embrace all that was in store for them — the good, the bad and the out of the ordinary.

"I can't wait to relay these experiences through my music, especially after meeting a young local student who breeds all sorts of animals — from flamingos to giraffes and cheetahs," says 21-year-old Reagan Panzu, a music student at Kingston University.

Great expectations

"I didn't expect this, but I've really enjoyed it and the art has been uniquely great," said Radhika Chavda, 15. "I also wanted to see how the youth my age live here and the girls we met were so open about things and there was a mutual respect."

"It's been so interesting to see how other cultures work and live life," said Fahad Paruez, 16. "After hearing so much about Dubai it is wonderful to finally be here and have it pass my every expectation."

Samira Patel, 15, who was delightfully digging her hands in a traditional Emirati rice dish, was full of praise after her initial misguided apprehension.

"The first thing I thought when I heard Middle East was conflict," Samira said, "but sitting here eating this food on the floor and being shown their culture, I realise it's so beautiful and so different to what we expected."

Julson had also been no stranger to the same learned media stereotypes Samira had previously been subjected to.

"When you compare what the media says to the art we've been showing, it's very different and not true," Jason said, " we have experienced everything this world city has to offer firsthand and our work is the truth."

The students' itinerary included

Sleeping on a traditional Emirati racing dhow in the heritage area of Bastakiya, and spending the evening playing cards (it certainly didn't take them long to settle right into Arab culture).

Camping in the desert, with a touch of storytelling.

Sandboarding and flying in a hot air balloon over the desert.

Admiring the architecture of the world's second largest mall, Ibn Battuta, as well as the Dubai skyline from the rooftops of high-rise skyscrapers.

Working with boys from the Rashid School for Boys and girls from the Latifa School for Girls.

"Never want to leave"

"I am hoping to study architecture and I will use this for a class project. It will also be so helpful for university as being chosen for something like this is very special… it normally happens to someone else, not you… and now I never want to leave"
— Julson Delishaj

"Everyone should get the chance to experience this — it's been so different for me but there have been no barriers despite what the media says… language, religion — none of it has been a problem."
— Reagan Panzu

"It's been hard without family but I get to share a lifetime experience with people I've just met. People definitely need to get more involved in these trips and see things for themselves, not through others, so that the message can be passed on!"
Radhika Chavda

"I love falcons and I am so excited to be here among them, and I honestly feel like this place is my home. I feel like I just walked out of Aladdin! After I finish studying I want to come back here and never leave."
— Fahad Paruez