Maeve Dunigan could have sworn that Farhad Bagheri was right there with her, inside a giant gold shipping container on the lawn of the University of Maryland campus, instead of standing in an industrial parking lot in Iran more than 6,000 miles away.
That was how naturally and comfortably the two chatted, how clearly Dunigan could read Bagheri’s gestures and the expression on his face as he adjusted his glasses. They talked about their plans to spend the evening with friends, traded notes on their smartphones and shared dreams of foreign travel.
“I haven’t even been off this continent, so I never would have thought that I could get up on a Wednesday morning and walk into a giant gold box and be able to talk to someone from Tehran,” said Dunigan, 19, who grew up in Catonsville, Md.
“The craziest part is that the conversation we had isn’t so different than the one we would have had if I’d just run into him on campus as I was going about my day.”
The two were participating in an innovative week-long program at the University of Maryland at College Park, where Dunigan is studying journalism. The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center is sponsoring one of the “portals” that bring together strangers from foreign lands as part of its annual NextNow festival welcoming students back to campus at the beginning of each academic year.
The portals will be open through Tuesday to members of the public who would like to chat with someone living in Iran, Afghanistan, Mexico or Honduras.
To get the conversation going, visitors respond to the same simple prompt: “What would make a good day for you?” From there, the discussion can go anywhere.
The portals are the brainchild of Amar Bakshi, a former foreign correspondent who set out in 2007 and traveled around the world with a backpack and a video camera to record the stories of ordinary people. Bakshi later worked for CNN and for Susan Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“The most powerful experiences I had were on the bus from one place to the next,” Bakshi said. “I’d turned off my camera, and my cellphone would be dead, and there was nothing else to do but talk to the person sitting next to me. We were very honest and expansive because we weren’t concerned that what we said would get back to our mothers or our bosses. Later, when I got back to America, I missed those conversations.”
After raising $75,000 through Kickstarter and Indiegogo crowdsourcing campaigns, Bakshi founded Shared Studios, opening his first portal in December. Now, he’s operating on a budget of less than $300,000 a year.
Bakshi envisions a network of portals “carving wormholes through the world” so that in the future, the ideas that one people might hold about other peoples and nations will spring from personal encounters.
“We intentionally don’t work with governments but with ordinary people,” he said. “A lot of the narratives that we have about other countries aren’t grounded in actual experience, but are based on what we see on the Internet or on TV. One of the people who visited our portals was a fighter pilot. He had flown missions to Afghanistan but had never before spoken to anyone who was living there.”
The portals simultaneously are low-tech and cutting-edge, evoking associations that included children on a beach digging a hole to China and Harry Potter’s Floo Network, a mode of communication that connects wizarding household fireplaces in the novels by J.K. Rowling.
Instead of fireplaces, portal visitors converse inside rectangular 10-by-20-foot shipping containers that have been painted gold. Participants sign up in advance for a 20-minute session with someone in another portal in another country. The connection between the portals is created using the commonplace magic of 21st-century audio and video technology, which beam full-body images of each person onto a giant screen.
“What surprised me is how personal it is,” said Martin Wollesen, the executive director of the arts center. He walked into the portal last week and spoke with three men who worked at a high-tech firm in Tehran about, among other things, the nuclear deal with Iran that President Obama secured this month.
“It didn’t feel like I was having a conversation on a computer screen with someone I’d never met before,” Wollesen said. “It became intimate and personal very quickly. The beauty of this idea is its simplicity. This is fundamentally who we are as human beings. We want to connect with other people in the world around us.”
Bakshi estimates that in the nine months that the portals have existed, they have been visited by about 5,000 people.
Shared Studios operates 10 portals. Some — in San Francisco, Iran, Afghanistan and Cuba — are permanent, while others are mobile, such as the one in College Park. Another mobile portal is in a Syrian refugee camp, and others may soon be located in Austria and Peru. Bakshi has hopes of putting one on the back of a truck and carting it around rural areas.
Translators are provided to participants, though Bagheri spoke such good English that when he met Dunigan, the translator’s services weren’t required.
“If you come here some day,” Bagheri, who is in his 20s, told Dunigan, “it will absolutely change your views about Iranians and Iran.”
Wollesen would love to install one of the portals full time at the arts center. He can envision regular coffee or lunch dates with a contact in Afghanistan, as well as educational, scientific and artistic collaborations.
“There was a moment,” he said, “when I half-imagined that [the person he was speaking to] and the others would walk in from the screen, and we’d all leave the shipping container together.”
Dancers Colette Krogol and her husband, Matthew Reeves, are exploring the boundaries of the portal’s possibilities. Last week, the couple, who together form Orange Grove Dance, used the portal to collaborate with an Afghan rap group called Fist Band. As band members began to rap in the Dari language, Reeves and Krogol used their bodies to respond to the sounds they heard.
“Something happened that was magical when we began moving around the container,” Krogol recalled.
“Even though we didn’t understand what they were saying, we sensed that they were talking about something really strong and important, and we were able to emphasize their meaning with our movement. When that happened, they seemed overjoyed.
“Technology often makes us feel more distant but in this case, it brought us closer together. All of a sudden, we were able to see each other for who we are.”
Back in the portal, Dunigan and Bagheri’s 20 minutes were almost up. He asked for her e-mail address, which she gladly provided. When Iran is in the news in the future, Dunigan said, she will wonder how it affects Bagheri, how he’s reacting to the development, what he will think.
Dunigan held out her right arm in the traditional American gesture of welcome.
“If you were here, I’d shake your hand,” she said.
He smiled and extended his own arm. From opposite sides of the world, they began to walk toward each other.