They say the world has become a global village, distances have decreased and communications are like never before. The media has an eye out for everything, the world knows it all. Everyone knows about everyone. Yet, no one really seems to know us; us as Pakistanis, us as Muslims. Of course, the world knows the stereotypes. It knows that Muslims are terrorists; it knows that Pakistanis are corrupt, it knows people are always dying in Pakistan due to bombings and people spend their lives trapped in fear. It knows Pakistanis hate Indians and Indians hate us.
These lines must have offended most of you, but this is how the world sees us. How the international, and even our local media portrays us. And no one does anything about it. No one thinks of ending these stereotypical images, of this pointless geo-political hate across borders. Though one guy did, and he didn’t just think of it, he is doing something about it; Eric Maddox, founder of Virtual Dinner Guest Project.
He has hosted various virtual dinners between different countries in Europe, the Middle East, USA and Asia too. He has connected Pakistan thrice, once with New Mexico, USA in 2011 and Bangalore, India in 2014 and recently with Germany in Virtual Iftar Project. I decided to interview Eric because his cause is something I want everyone to be a part of.
The News on Sunday: What sparked the idea for Virtual Dinner Guest Project (VDGP)? How did it come about?
Eric Maddox: VDGP evolved in stages. I was working on my graduate research project in West Bank in International Conflict Resolution and was living in Dheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank. This was 2008, so it was the 60th anniversary of what is known in the Palestinian community as The Nakba, or “The Catastrophe”, and what Israelis refer to as Independence Day. So, I started making a documentary on the subject. I interviewed people of both sides, people whose lives were affected by the 1948 War.
Later, I received a small grant as a result of the documentary that I had made, and I realised my focus should really be on getting to people to ask each other questions, rather than me asking them, as it would be a far more powerful tool for addressing competing narratives and for transforming conflict. I wanted to remove myself from the equation as they could simply relate to one another. So, afterwards, I got a grant because of the documentary I had made on The Nakba and that indirectly led to the start of this project. The first Virtual Dinner took place between Juarez, Mexico and Santa Fem New Mexico, USA in July 2011.
TNS: When you set out for VDGP, what goals did you have in mind? Do you think you’ve accomplished them?
EM: Major goals, none. When I started, I had no idea what I was doing, in terms of the bigger picture. Now, I am clearer about the method and the bigger picture. I know what they are and I know how I want to accomplish them.
TNS: Tell us about your experience as the host of India-Pakistan dinner?
EM: India-Pakistan conflict is more of a generational conflict from what I have learned. At this point the only understanding your generation can have is through the eyes of an older generation. I faced some hate speech for that particular dinner from the Indian side of the border. However, I realised that most people I have spoken with from your generation are open to discussion. I learned a lot about the history of the conflict. The fact that your text and their text of the same historical event is almost opposite, was quite shocking. It’s because of things like this that we need person-to-person interaction with other communities, so we can learn their side of things.
TNS: Do you plan on coming to Pakistan?
EM: Yes, I would love to! I am short on budget and funding, it’s a big move and I cannot come if I don’t have enough money to open communication. But if I found the support I will definitely come to Pakistan.
TNS: Muslim community has suffered a lot because of how their image is often portrayed. Yet, you seem to believe in them. Why is that?
EM: I came to the Middle East in 2002 to study Arabic, and as I travelled I realised what the media shows is often just hype and grossly misleading. It started bothering me when I realised that misinformation and exaggeration influence the policies of many governments and that it comes with a heavy human cost. For me it’s really not that complicated. Every community has good people and bad people. But my personal experience with the Muslim community in one country after the next has been overwhelmingly positive and I am fortunate to have made many good friends.
TNS: What does the world need to know about the Muslim community?
EM: I am not comfortable with generalising. The people I have met in the Muslim community have put a roof over my head, fed me, looked after me, and they did this without asking for anything in return, wherever I went. If you’re a Christian, or of any faith or ideological background and you would do this too, then please take something from that story.
TNS: What has been your favourite dinner todate and why?
EM: I have been asked this question a lot. Do I need to say Pakistan as this is for a Pakistani newspaper? (laughs).
There are different moments that I have enjoyed in all of them. I cannot compare. But when you see people transitioning from anxious strangers to being comfortable discussing issues that are intense, and you see them opening up to each other, I think it’s amazing. I distinctly remember those moments from the India-Pakistan dinner.
TNS: What keeps you going?
EM: It hasn’t been easy. I was so nervous about the Virtual Iftar Project because I literally had nothing left. I just had enough finances to get to Kosovo by bus. Also, in the past I’ve dealt with political and personal attacks, attacks on my character, my funding had been taken away for petty or political reasons, but I’m committed because this is something I really believe in. I don’t have a political agenda, other than free exchange of ideas and open communication. It’s just people talking to people. We need more of that. And I know it’s going to achieve its goals.