Costantino della Gherardesca: “A Beijing Express Launched Against Islamophobia”

“Shikran!” “Shakran!” “Shukran!” In the end, the competitors in Beijing Express manage to get the right voice to say “thank you”, the race that for over ten years has brought challenging couples around the world in a kind of traveling “Games without Borders”. This year, the festival focused on the “Sultan’s Route”: and it went, as the introduction to each episode explains, to the countries that, above all, held the torch of culture in the Western Middle Ages.


Four Islamic countries have been elected: Turkey and Uzbekistan, Jordan and the Emirates. Countries whose situation was favorable to welcome a chaotic caravan of competitors who search for passengers for hundreds of kilometers every day, and every night, without money and without a mobile phone, must find someone to host them for the night . And meanwhile, episode after episode, the viewer discovers wonderful landscapes and fascinating traces not only of Islamic civilization, but of those who preceded it: Greeks and Romans, Hittites and Mongols, and then Persians, Bedouins, Nabataeans .. . Next Thursday, May 12, the final episode will air. This year, the fair, produced by Banijay Italia from a Belgian-Dutch format, has moved from Rai to Sky (and is available in streaming on Now). But Costantino della Gherardesca remained in charge, as here tells the background of the operation.

Why did Beijing Express take to Arab countries after traveling around the world this year?
“It was a choice of production and the Sky network, and there was no resistance from me because all the countries we passed through, except Uzbekistan, are countries that I already knew and that I love very much. We have traveled to countries that are going through a politically favorable period in this historic moment – many countries in the Middle East are in a difficult moment – and since it was an area we had not yet crossed, we took the ball.My personal passion for Islamic and Persian Arab culture is a love affair that I have deepened for years in the programs I do and in the articles I write.I am also against Islamophobia because I think it is part of a larger Italian bigot mentality, of closure facing what is different from mainstream, from what everyone does and what everyone thinks.

“A decade ago, at a time of particular fervor towards Muslims, I organized a ‘week against Islamophobia’ on the radio, and it was relatively controversial at the time. It was the same period when I strongly supported my friend Sumaya Abdel Qader, who became a city councilor in the municipality of Milan: she is a Muslim woman and wears a veil, and her victory was a very emotional moment. On that occasion, I learned that prejudices against Muslims are very superficial: market research had shown that a Muslim man would easily have been voted on, while a woman would not have been severely discriminated against just because of the veil. But we did our best and we managed to bring it to victory despite prejudice.

The images of the Beijing Express take a journey through time – in Uzbekistan, some things are enough as they were in the Middle Ages, Dubai looks like a science fiction city – and in social inequalities. What was it like working between these contrasts?
“I was very affected by something that happened in Jordan. On a day off, I went to the Dead Sea, which I had never seen in my life. It was an extraordinary sight, but I realized that part of the success, Jordan experience, unfortunately, is due to the crisis that Lebanon is currently going through.Just think about the study of the language.Some time ago when I wanted to study Arabic, the most suitable countries were Lebanon, Jordan and the Emirates.But the Emirates cost too much, and after the explosion in August two years ago, Lebanon has changed radically, it is no longer a stable place, therefore Jordan is full of schools and foreign students.The comparison between wealth and poverty can also be seen in Lombardy.But we often tend to generalize calling a Kenyan “African” is wrong: I, from the province of Livorno, am offended if they tell me I am from Pisa. Instead, my colleagues also tend to generalize on a superficial and creepy nkende way ‘.

“The Sultans’ Route” actually shows viewers that “Arabs” are not all the same, that the Arab world is full of differences.
“Yes, all Arab or Muslim countries are radically different from each other in every way. For example, in the Beijing Express, which is a program where we try to show radically different parts of the world, once a year ago we got a transsexual person to sleep in a house of very observant Muslims, without emphasizing that he was that. Of course, as we explained at the press conference, there is always a security check by the organization before the attending couples actually go to bed in the houses. But there was no problem, she was excited. For one thing I have noticed is that homosexuality has also been used to create friction and discrimination against Muslim culture ”.

From what we see in the episodes, there have been very few problems for women. They went without a veil, with low-cut and tight-fitting dresses: one would have expected more prejudice against them …
“People who expect women to have big problems in Jordan or the Emirates are really ignorant … Countries like Jordan have enormous respect. But in reality, we have seen in recent news that the frightening situations for women in the Islamic world has emerged in nations where the state had failed, such as Afghanistan, where extremist groups have taken power ”.

This season leaves the viewer with the memory of Sufi dancers or of the Emirati tribe expressing themselves through rhythmic screams. Or the Uzbek father, very poor but full of love for his six children, who moved the spirited Helena Prestes to tears. What are the best memories you will take with you from this edition of Beijing Express?
“You watch on video what happens to the competitors and it’s wonderful, but I remember very well what happened to me. The place where I was best received on this route was Jordan, an unforgettable experience. I would like to see Turkey again, although I unfortunately found it changed, certainly worse for the administration in recent years. I am a somewhat distorted person, so I can also love the Arab Emirates, although the first few times I was in Dubai, I had anxiety attacks in front of the architecture: the kind of cathedrals of capitalism built in the desert, a kind of aesthetic violence, but also that , that children in kindergartens play with being entrepreneurs … In short, I also had my prejudices, which are radically different from the prejudices people usually have towards the Arab world. But by returning to this or that TV show, I have overcome them. And I also ended up loving this strange border place, where in the same restaurant you can see Tony Blair at one table, and at another table a dangerous refugee who has taken refuge there. It’s a place that has its own new aesthetic, certainly very dissonant for most of the “cultured people”, but interesting. And in any case, it’s important to be able to find beauty wherever you go: even in Dubai ».

Leave a Comment