Change begins with one person, one step at a time. This is a principle Tarek Mounib takes to heart. Seeking to build a bridge of mutual understanding and friendship, Mounib – a Canadian-Egyptian entrepreneur of Muslim faith – travels across the U.S. to find Americans concerned about an Islamic threat and makes them an intriguing offer . . . a Free Trip to Egypt. He reached out to the people who fear him most and urged them to “leave their baggage behind” in “Free Trip to Egypt,” a profoundly revealing documentary, with a goal of launching a social media movement for change.
With initial reactions ranging from suspicion to hostility, Mounib treks from sunny California to a Trump Rally in Kentucky, a small town in the heart of Georgia, Union Square in NYC . . . and a variety of locales in between. Eventually he cobbles together a diverse group of people, including a school teacher, police officer, Marine Corps veteran, single mom, preacher and beauty pageant queen. All have preconceptions and misgivings but are open and courageous enough to embark on the adventure of a lifetime in Cairo, Egypt, where the Americans are paired with locals just as diverse as them . . . and possibly with just as many misconceptions.
We recently sat down with Mounib to learn more about his journey and what he learned during the making of “Free Trip to Egypt.”
What have you experienced in your life that led you to undertake this journey?
I was born in Canada to Egyptian parents and live in Switzerland. My ex-wife is German and my son was born there. I’ve had many homes and been blessed with the realization that people are really the same wherever you go. It’s a cliché, but I’ve really experienced it. I’ve felt at home with people of many religious and cultural beliefs who felt like family. When I see conflict in the world between races or religions, it’s almost like seeing two people I love fighting. My natural reaction is to want to create harmony. I’ve felt a deep polarization happening over the past few years, which made me truly concerned about where we were headed as a society and as a world. The inspiration just came to me and the rest is history as they say.
What were some of the things documentary participants were most surprised to find they had in common with their Egyptian counterparts?
I think the experience of each participant was very different, so it’s hard to generalize. Jason Reynolds, who is a Christian pastor in Kentucky, and Jenna Day, from his congregation, wanted to spread the love of Jesus and their Christian beliefs to the people of Cairo. They were paired up with an orthodox Muslim family where the father has a beard and the woman wears a full burqa, covering her entire face. Externally, very different people. The conversation surprised them and we were all surprised by the degree of connection and love they felt for one another.
What I found truly remarkable was that they didn’t get into a religious or who’s right/who’s wrong debate. Just the opposite occurred and there was a deep faith-based respect. Jason commented on how much he admired the father and sons and the daughters’ devotion to their prayers. He said the family’s devotion inspires him to be a greater “prayer warrior for Christ.” On the opposite side, the Muslim father and mother told me how much they felt Jason and Jenna were like their own children. They also expressed respect for Jason and Jenna because of their devotion to their faith.
Ellen & Terry Decker’s experience was so profound that I think when people see the movie, they will realize how their lives were completely changed and how they became completely different people afterwards. It was quite moving to witness.
It was really inspiring to see that people with contradictory beliefs and faiths can still genuinely share love and respect. I think all of them were really surprised at the degree of connection.
Were there any surprising preconceived misconceptions the Egyptian counterparts had about Americans coming into the documentary?
It’s interesting because a lot of the Egyptians actually had no real-life experience with Americans. The journey was just as much about breaking down the stereotypes of the Americans as it was the Egyptians. I remember one of the Egyptian participants said he understood American culture very well because he watches American television every day.
The other family had similar preconceptions because their only exposure was also media. Jenna reflected that the Egyptians were expecting her to be like Kim Kardashian. I think the Egyptians had a very Hollywood view of what Americans are like, with high-rolling lifestyles like in the movies. It was amazing to witness those stereotypes being broken down to connect at a human level.
We assembled such a diverse group of Americans – politically, economically, racially, age, religion – and paired them up with Egyptians who were just as diverse and just as extreme from one end to the other, from very secular to very religious. I had no idea what was going to happen, whether people were going to fight or break it up. We faced a lot of conflict moments where we could have easily broken apart and there was tension, yet we managed to survive together and connect.
What was the significance, if any, of choosing to give away a free trip to Egypt? Why not one of the other roughly 50 countries where Muslims are the majority?
There were a number of reasons I chose Egypt, the first being because my parents come from Egypt. I have a very strong network of friends and relatives there. I felt if I’m going to take Americans to another country, that’s a huge responsibility. I wanted to make sure that I felt very secure and comfortable and had the right resources for a safe and enjoyable trip.
At the same time, independent of my personal background, I also think Egypt – of all the possible locations – truly reflects the diversity of the Middle East we were hoping to encounter, with a population ranging from very secular people to very religious. There’s a large Christian or Coptic Christian population there as well as a very broad range of interpretation of Islam.
Additionally, we also wanted to offer an act of kindness, so taking people to a holiday destination like Egypt, which has beaches, cultural areas and the pyramids, felt like a treat. For me, it was important that the Americans didn’t feel like they were going to a place of hardship or a war zone. That would be interesting, but it wasn’t the intent of this film.
Tell us more about #PledgeToListen, the follow-up social impact campaign to the documentary.
During one moment on the trip, I thought, “Okay, if these people with such diverse backgrounds and views can connect, why not the rest of the world?” That was the birth of the #PledgeToListen movement, which is basically our way of connecting all the people who want to see more listening and kindness in the world. It doesn’t end with Free Trip to Egypt, it begins there.
Now we’re asking people to take the #PledgeToListen, to come together and create a large network to continue the conversation, using the film as inspiration. What are the obstacles? How we can come together? I realized that people just need to listen to each other and see our common humanity. Then other differences seem petty and we can overcome anything to transform this polarity in the world.
It’s really attracted a lot of people. The first person to sign the #PledgeToListen was a Trump supporter in California. Donald Trump’s ex-wife, Marla Maples, as well as Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Congressman Tim Ryan have expressed their support. There are activists, influencers, musicians, sports figures and celebrities coming on board. If we just agree to return to basic humanity and #PledgeToListen, we can accomplish a lot together.
Here we are nearly 18 years after 911 and it seems that suspicion and hostility toward Muslims is still as prevalent in America as it was right after the attacks. What more could we be doing to breed a culture of tolerance and understanding in the United States?
That’s a very good question, and I’m not sure I have the answer to it. But I knew for me, doing nothing wasn’t an option. Living in Switzerland, I have read a lot of media articles about the United States in the last few years and watch the news. I was starting to fear Americans and worry about where the country was headed. I wondered if we were on the brink of World War III? It was scary and one of the triggers of why I launched this project, to face my own fears.
But as soon as I stepped onto American soil started randomly approaching Americans – whether it was in New York City or at a Trump rally in Louisville, Ky., or Vidalia, Ga., or wherever – as soon as you start speaking one-on-one as human beings, all this fear dissipates. For me, that’s exactly what happened. As soon as I started talking to Americans, Trump supporters and anti-Trump people alike, we connected and the view became less of the focus. You start to see the humanity of the person.
I think that’s probably the key in transforming the suspicion and hostility. Instead of theoretical laws and abstract this or that, treat each other as if we were in the same room. Treat each other the way we teach our children to treat each other in kindergarten. I have a very basic set of values and morality. It’s basically kindergarten morality. If we just followed what we tell our kids in kindergarten, I think the world would be an amazing place.
Following a one-week theatrical run in New York City (May 31) and Los Angeles (June 7), “Free Trip to Egypt” will enjoy a one-night event premiere June 12 in 450+ theaters across the country; and is also available for viewing in theaters on Cinema on Demand via Tugg.