Meeting the Chinese students from Peking University at MIA’s Education Centre in February was very interesting. Although Chinese and Qatari cultures can seem very different, the Qatar Museums Years of Culture program creates a space for cultural dialogue and interaction between nations.

So what were these students doing here in Qatar, in Qatar Museums’ flagship building? Well they’re part of the Qatar University – Peking University Cultural Exchange Program, where students from both countries are given the privilege of learning about a new culture, and they were taking part in an Arabic calligraphy workshop.

This activity is part of a wider China-Arabia Multicultural Exchange Link or CAMEL, a rather fittingly coined abbreviation – or perhaps not – but that’s another story.

The Student Activities Department at Qatar University hosted the visit of 14 students from Peking University between 14th and 21st February as part of an on-going partnership between the universities.

The most interesting part of the cross-cultural encounter was the change of perceptions amongst the Chinese students of Qatari and Gulf Arab culture in particular.

Charlie, a 20 years old student at Peking University studying German language and Literature and Business, said: “I’m very interested in Qatar and its people. In China, we have the impression that Qatar is rich and conservative, but I decided I wanted to come and see for myself. There is a shroud of mystery surrounding Qatar and other Arab countries. But I discovered that students here are very outgoing – especially the girls! They are very fashionable, and they like shopping and make-up – just like Chinese girls!”

“I thought I would find Muslim girls covered in black hijab, very conservative and religious, and not open minded,” said Yousef, a 20 year old student at Peking University studying Arabic Language, Literature and Culture. “But after this trip, I found them to be smart, open-minded, family-oriented, fashionable and loyal to their husbands. In many ways, I consider them to be ideal women!”

So what did the Chinese students like most about Qatar?

“The architecture of MIA,” said Charlie in a heartbeat. “You know the architect is Chinese?” I said teasingly. “Look, I’ve been to The Louvre, British Museum, and Smithsonian museums, but I have never seen such an outstanding building.”

“I love how the design and decoration of so many public spaces and objects in Qatar is based on Arabic calligraphy and Islamic art. It is very beautiful,” said Fatima, a 23 year old student studying Arabic and Turkish Language and Culture.

I was interested in what the students learned outside the classroom and what they would be taking back with them to China.

“I was privileged enough to take part in a Qatari ladies gathering,” said Fatima. “I was very impressed by the hospitality and generosity I experienced. It was also a great opportunity to practice my Arabic! I am Muslim; and I love the Arabic language and the art of calligraphy; and being here, practicing both, has been so rewarding for me.”

Yousef had a vision for the future: “I want to open direct lines of communication between China and Qatar. On TV, we don’t see an accurate picture of the reality of life here. My father, who is an official and university professor, believes that in future, the Middle East will be a very important market for China, and I think it’s important that we build bridges together. That is why I’m studying Arabic.”