Photo: Graham Lacdao
Fighting prejudice with youthful arts and minds
The Middle East is rarely the source of what could generally be described as good news. Britons who have never set foot in the region might well think that while our binge-drinking teenagers are merely throwing up, theirs are actually throwing rocks.
Thankfully, even the most hardened news junkie will admit that all the newsreel footage in the world is no substitute for experiencing the real thing or for meeting real people.
"You must know that we are kind people in the Middle East and we are not all terrorists. Dubai is a safe area. I hope people here know that we would like to see them in our country."
Mohammed, 18, from the United Arab Emirates, is a budding photographer who would like, one day, to work for the BBC. He supports Manchester United. He is hungry because the food in London is 'healthy but not tasty.' Culinary criticisms aside, he thinks London is great; he doesn't want to leave and promises to visit every summer.
Mohammed is just one of eight students from the Middle East – two each from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Lebanon – who have won local art competitions. Their prize is this two-week trip around the British Isles in search of a unique portrait of British life.
After all, misconceptions can work both ways.
The trip is the largely thanks to the endeavour and vision of Stephen Stapleton, a former teacher in East London. Angered and spurred on by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Stapleton, along with a group of teachers and artists, founded Offscreen, a social enterprise company, to redress 'the pictures that were being presented between the two places.'
The idea is simple: To take artistic students from the Middle East and show them around Britain; and to take artistic students from Britain and show them around the Middle East.
West to East
Last year was the inaugural expedition when a team of nine British students embarked upon on a 12-day trip to the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
"The British students that we took to the Middle East had a very simple view that it was a 'villagey' place and people were sitting around pots and drinking tea. Or they had a very conflict-led view. It was very homogenous. They moulded the countries into one big war zone," says Stapleton, 30, now the Director of Offscreen.
"What happened was that they made great friends and they came back learning a few Middle Eastern values, such as looking after strangers, of being kind without expecting anything in return. There have been some lovely changes in the students since they have come back. Their parents say it has really affected them."
East to West
Aysha, 17, from Bahrain, is another of the students who are now visiting Britain on the first 'East to West' journey of the Offscreen programme. Her dream is to be a fashion designer; she lists Harry Potter among her favourite books; initially homesick, she is now having so much fun she says she doesn't want to go home.
Aysha, 17. Photo: Graham Lacdao
"I had seen London in the movies. I thought everything was classical and old but I have now seen that there are some modern buildings. That was my first impression: That London is actually modern now," says Aysha.
And the highlight of her trip so far?
"The Houses of Parliament. The building is amazing. I never imagined that I would be inside of it and it was really unbelievable."
"There is no difference between the people here and the people in our country because we do the same things like going to the cinema, shopping and having parties and stuff. This Offscreen trip is important because we are spreading peace in a simple way, so it is like the beginning of making all people equal."
Visiting St Paul's
On the fourth day of their expedition, the group are in the Education Centre at St Paul's Cathedral to learn some icon painting with the artist-in-residence Regan O'Callaghan. It is a novel experience for them; they are all fairly religious and the depiction of people and living things is strictly forbidden in Mosques.
Photo: Graham Lacdao
"It's really important for them to see the inner workings of a Christian religious building when they are in England," says Stephen Stapleton.
"They will also have a tour of St Paul's where a lot of them want to ask some deep questions about spirituality and faith and how that is manifested in Christian traditions compared to Islam."
This is Britain
As well as a whirlwind tour of the capital, the group will also be visiting the Scottish Highlands; meeting British Muslims in Manchester; going to Wales and visiting Eton, as well as some tough inner schools. It is a tour, says Stapleton, which has been designed to test their preconceptions of Britain.
"England has got a very strong brand abroad: Very traditional, the Queen, drinking tea and stuff. But it is also quite violent in terms of how the Middle East sees British involvement in Iraq; the stuff that the British are not doing in Palestine and Israel."
"And surprising things like football hooliganism – things like that travel quite far in the outside world. So they're getting a reality check about the complexity of life that you get here."
About Social Enterprises
Profit-making businesses set up to pursue a social need.
E.g. The Big Issue channels its profits into helping the homeless.
A grassroots movement
Offscreen is not a charity, but a social enterprise group and financing the trips is largely dependent on attracting corporate sponsorship and freebies. Not registering as a charity allows it to operate more dynamically, free from having every decision overseen by a board of trustees.
Although Offscreen receives invaluable help from the British Council, the UK's cultural outreach body, it has in the past been denied official government funding because, says Stephen Stapleton, 'we don't directly counter-terrorism.'
"Ours is a slow, grassroots programme that might take 10 years to stop terrorism but terrorism is based in hearts and minds. We are trying to give talented and creative young people from both cultures the chance to find solutions when people are not getting on or who don't yet understand each other."
"We hope that in the future, these young people will start to have an influence in the societies in which they live. That you can start with one person and you ripple out from there."
Find out more and read the students' blog on their tour of Britain featuring pictures, videos and more on the Offscreen website:
last updated: 15/07/2008 at 12:57