During the filming of my last VR experience, The Last Goodbye, I was struck by how Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter drew parallels between the past and the present. His reflections were not limited to the persecution of the Jews, but also to Muslims and the growing Islamophobia spreading throughout Europe and beyond. There was something in the hysteria, misinformation and discrimination that alarmed him about where things were headed. He couldn't help thinking of his own journey when seeing recent images of numerous migrants fleeing war and violence. Like him, and countless Jews during and after World War II, they were denied entry into countries because of their religion and ethnicity.
This was before President Trump and his travel ban on Muslim countries - a heartless measure taken to reduce the number of refugees entering the United States. It is almost impossible to separate these measures from their faith. An almost willful ignorance exists around Islam. Muslims must combat negative stereotypes about terrorism, extremism and intolerance on a daily basis. There is little awareness or acknowledgement of the beauty, grace and plurality of Islam. Many permutations of the faith espouse peace and goodwill for millions of people.
My own relationship to Islamic traditions and Muslim people is complicated by the fact that my parents were forced to flee as children from what is now Pakistan. A co-existence and mutual admiration with those from Islamic faiths turned into vehemence, revenge and bitterness almost overnight. My family lost everything. Many of them were killed as their house and personal property were seized by Muslims. I grew up with this narrative and believed Muslims were not to be trusted. Such negative stereotypes were engrained within me as a child.
But I grew up in New York and not New Delhi like my parents. We had Pakistani neighbors in Queens. My education also slowly softened my initial mistrust and animosity. Even my parents on their return trips to India would not indulge in the chauvinism and jingoism that continues to escalate with the election of Hindu nationalist parties. My work, over the past 15 years, as a humanitarian with the United Nations, and the travel throughout the Middle East, also exposed me to different aspects and complexity within Islamic practice.
It was on one such humanitarian mission to Tunisia, earlier this year, that left a particularly lasting mark. While I was there, along with my collaborators from Sensorium, running a VR storytelling workshop for first responders headed to Libya, we had a chance to participate in a Sufi ritual. Sufism is an ancient Islamic tradition practiced by millions across the Arab world and is known for its emphasis on the ecstatic. The goal of many rituals is to enter a trance state, precipitated by music and dance.
During this trip, I also learned that Salafists and other extremists in the region attacked Sufi shrines following the Arab Spring, and that in numerous countries like Iran and Turkey, many Sufi practices are banned. Whenever we would talk about Tunisia, and its relative stability in the region compared with other neighbors, many attributed it to a revival of interest in its Sufi past. Even after many Sufi shrines were desecrated, their was still a popular uprising to support Sufis, with young people especially enthusiastic.
One of the central tenets of Sufism is that one cannot always understand the world through rational means. One must be initiated into a ritual. My interaction with these Sufis completely shifted my perspective, and I thought about how it would be possible to share this meaningfully with the world. Not everyone can have this experience, but with new immersive technologies Like VR, it could potentially reach many more people. This became even more clear to me after my trip to Tunisia.
Clouds Over Sidra, my first VR documentary, was an early attempt to get people to understand the refugee crisis through the story of a young girl. People, for the first time, were able to be teleported to a refugee camp and connect with a family in ordinary, non-sensational ways. The film has been widely credited for showing the power of VR to change and shape attitudes and continues to be a powerful fundraising tool for UNICEF - doubling donations consistently with their face-to-face fundraisers. Studies out of USC, UCL and Google, to name a few, continue to show evidence that this film, and VR, are changing hearts and minds.
This new project, ZIKR: A SUFI REVIVAL, is meant to take things in a new direction - both technically and from a storytelling perspective. VR continues to evolve and is becoming more then just 360° video. The ability for greater immersion means that the technology can be used for more then just passive experiences. It can now allow engagement and interaction that creates new empathetic responses and the ability to learn things experientially. Agency is now paramount.
Zikr, in Arabic, means an elevated state brought upon through Sufi rituals, and the experience aims to be participatory and social. A mix of room-scale interactions lead participants into ecstatic states and allow them to tap into a deeper understanding of the stories and motivations behind Sufi practices. My hope is this work, with its higher level of engagement and interactivity, will allow for more meaningful connections to Islam that go beyond empathy and tolerance. I want it to evoke the deep sense of bliss and elation these rituals bring in order to communicate something that cannot be learned through words, but only through experience.