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"Portals" Opens New Channel Between U.S. and Iran


By Barbara Slavin (source: VOA)

I “visited” Iran the other day but didn’t need a visa or a plane ticket. Through the magic of the Internet and sophisticated audiovisual technology, I chatted for 20 minutes with a young man in Tehran about the mood there in anticipation of a historic nuclear agreement with the U.S. and five other nations.

Instead of enduring a cramped overnight flight with a stopover in Europe en route, I stood inside an air-conditioned shipping container in downtown Washington, D.C., and faced a life-sized image of the young man, who was actually standing in a room in an art gallery in central Tehran. He saw an equally vivid image of me; the sensation was of being in a room together, separated not by thousands of miles and years of political division but by only a few feet.

The project, known as “Portals,” was organized by Shared_Studios, an innovative art, design and technology collective. It’s the brainchild of a young Indian-American, Amar Bakshi, who once produced a multimedia blog for the Washington Post called “How the World Sees America.”

Since the Portals project opened late last year, more than 3,000 people have been connected in Herat (Afghanistan), Tehran, Havana, New York, New Haven and Washington, according to Michelle Moghtader, director of global development for Shared Studios.

There have been some touching moments. Iranian-Americans who have stayed away from Iran for decades have had reunions with family members. One Iranian-American dancer performed for her relatives in the safety of the container. And two sculptors collaborated on a joint piece of art.

On Friday (June 19) night, organizers tried to expand the experience, inviting about 50 people to sit in the Woodrow Wilson Plaza to hear a live concert of traditional musicians from Tehran. But slow Internet speeds in Iran knocked out the signal just a few minutes after the music began. The audience had to be satisfied with a song recorded a few days earlier, in anticipation of such glitches.

Moghtader said Internet speeds had been reduced dramatically in the past few days in Iran. She attributed that to government concerns about possible unrest around the anniversary of the 2009 Green Movement protests. Bakshi told the audience that “Tehran is by far the hardest connection to sustain. Heart and Havana are a breeze by comparison.”

Eventually, Bakshi was able to get Tehran back on line so audience members could chat with the musicians and hear one of them sing a Ray Charles song. But the signal dropped again and the Iranians disappeared into the ether.

In Iran, the portal is situated in a room on the third floor of an avant-garde gallery, the Sazmanab Center for Contemporary Art in downtown Tehran, not far from the vacated U.S. embassy.

The young video artist who founded the gallery, Sohrab Kashani, is skilled at turning adversity into advantage. Turned down a few years ago for a U.S. visa, he got a friend to walk around New York City wearing Google glasses and introducing himself as Sohrab, as a sort of avatar. Through Portals, the organizers hope to expand and deepen the experience. “This whole project is about making mundane connections more meaningful,” Bakshi said.

Moghtader, a former journalist who previously covered Iran for Reuters from Dubai, said Iranians who have showed up to talk to Americans range from teen-aged film students to a philosophy professor who decided that meeting an American this way would be a great way to celebrate her 50th birthday.

The conversations are not recorded but some of the American participants have written their impressions in an album adjacent to the shipping container.

“Today, I met my first person from Tehran,” wrote one participant, who signed his first name, Jason. “I find that people are the same more than they are different. It was a good experience.”

Moghtader, who translates for Americans and Iranians when necessary, said there have been some awkward moments, but also mentorships and relationships that have blossomed from the conversations inside the container, which is padded with grey carpeting inside and painted dark gold on the outside.

Sometimes, Moghtader says, people start out talking about politics and then shift quickly to more personal matters. “They want to learn something else about each other’s cultures,” she said.

The young man I spoke with said he was born in Iran but raised abroad and had come home for the summer to work on an art project. While life is reasonably pleasant for the upper middle class and the rich, he said he found other Iranians to be “broken” in spirit and depressed about the future despite the prospect of a better relationship with the United States and the West. He said he was also surprised to find considerable popular support for the Iranian nuclear program, which he doubted would bring any benefits for Iran.

New York composer and performer Kavita Shah composed a new piece with kamancheh player Mohammed Zarimer in Tehran.

Portals got its initial funding from a Kickstarter campaign as well as a nonprofit organization, Bridges of Understanding, which promotes better relations between the U.S. and the Middle East. Moghtader said Portals accepts no U.S. government support.

The shipping container cost about $3,000 plus an additional $20,000-$30,000 for the audiovisual and other technical equipment. It is extremely costly to move because it is not on wheels. Bakshi said they are looking for a permanent home for the container in Washington. The current run ended on June 21.


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