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Art Installation Opens Passage To A Different World


Throughout this morning, we're tracking the attack in Paris. Two gunmen today walked into the offices of a satirical magazine. Our colleague Eleanor Beardsley reports they killed the police officer guarding the door, then went on to kill a dozen people, including cartoonists. Video captured the men saying something about avenging the prophet. The magazine had run material that offended Muslims and also Jews, Catholics and others. The gunmen are still at large, and we'll bring you more as we learn it.

It is a bitter irony that the day of this attack is a day that we planned to bring you a story about bridging two worlds. We recently stood at a door in New York. We walked through that door and faced a person inside Iran. That was the concept of an art installation which started in New York and whose creators hope to take it elsewhere. They invited us to try. Walk into a common steel shipping container painted gold.

So we have this shipping container. And it's - wow - like, carpeted on the inside. The walls are carpeted.

The creators called this a portal - a chance to talk with people on the other side of a great divide.

Someone's going to shut the door here I guess.

The far wall of this quiet chamber was covered by screen. And on that screen, almost life-size, was a video feed of a man in Tehran.

Hello. Salaam alaikum. Hi.

YOSHAR: Hello.

INSKEEP: The man asked if I could adjust where I was standing because there was a camera focused on me.

YOSHAR: A little on your right.

INSKEEP: A little bit on my right. There we go. How's that?


INSKEEP: He, too, was standing in a dark room. The artists' concept was to have a conversation with a random person - a conversation we would never ordinarily have.

INSKEEP: Can you tell me something about yourself?

YOSHAR: My name is Yoshar. I'm an English and Spanish teacher.

INSKEEP: The Skype connection was fuzzy sometimes. But we learned the language teacher was in his mid-20s. He was clean-shaven. He wore a white shirt with the sleeves pushed up. Early in our talk, he put his hand on his neck and bounced around, showing the natural discomfort of anyone meeting a stranger. Yet our talk swiftly grew comfortable and revealing. We did not talk politics - the strategic competition between two nations now trying to negotiate a nuclear deal. We talked about one man's daily life in Iran.

YOSHAR: Before I started teaching, I was a really, really shy guy.

INSKEEP: A shy teacher who now aspires to see the world.

YOSHAR: I'm wanting to study at NYU or MIT - modern languages or linguistics.

INSKEEP: Yes, he wants to study at NYU - New York University - here in this city he's never seen. He knows New York only from sitcoms like "Friends," where it appears more free than his country.

YOSHAR: I never thought I was doing bad with the freedom I have in Iran. I love dancing. And I dance on the streets.

INSKEEP: In Iran, dancing in public is forbidden.

YOSHAR: People do stare at me. But if a policeman comes and says something, I just start speaking one of the languages I know. So nothing bad really happens to me in that way...

INSKEEP: You'll start speaking to the policeman in Spanish, for example?

YOSHAR: Yeah, I speak Spanish, Italian, French.

INSKEEP: Is the policeman then just confused and leaves you alone?

YOSHAR: Yeah. Yeah.

INSKEEP: He related a common joke in Iran - whatever makes you happy is illegal. As we spoke, the shipping container grew warm and the air close. When our time together ended, Yoshar walked out of sight, leaving only the dark screen.

INSKEEP: All right, I guess we're going to reemerge back in New York City.

We stepped out of the shipping container and back into the art gallery where it sat. The creator of this portal to another world was standing outside. Amar Bakshi used to write stories overseas for The Washington Post.

AMAR BAKSHI: I always thought, like, you know, it would be great if my grandmother met this person I've met on the road.

INSKEEP: So he created this shipping container, where a stream of people took turns having brief encounters. Organizers scheduled people in New York and Tehran to talk for about 10 minutes at a time


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Time's up when you're done.

INSKEEP: It was provocative to choose Iran and the U.S. as the first countries to connect. Much more than the ocean lies between these two nations that have contended on the world stage for more than 35 years. The organizers proclaim no political agenda. But there was a message of sorts implied when American Christine Finley spent her 10 minutes in the portal and fell into conversation with an Iranian man.

CHRISTINE FINLEY: He was a composer. We just talked about art for 10 minutes.

INSKEEP: Gazing through the portal to the world on the other side, she simply found another person. A human being like herself. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.