The question sounds rhetorical but a literal free trip to Egypt was at the heart of the documentary, Free Trip to Egypt.
The premise? Take a few unlikely candidates for world travel (namely, from the heart of America) and send them on a trip to Egypt. Not only would it be a sightseeing journey but also an immersion into a Muslim and Arabic way of life. Kind of like a foreign exchange program for adults.
Why the documentary especially appealed to me is because I found myself in a similar situation last December when I was offered a hosted trip to Saudi Arabia. My first inclination was are you kidding me? Followed quickly by, well, maaaaybe.
I firmly believe in the mantra, If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you. And I was anxious to see if these unlikely travelers in the documentary would experience the same eye-opening experience that I did when I returned from Saudi Arabia.
The Man Behind the Documentary
Tarek Mounib is an Egyptian-born, Swiss-Canadian entrepreneur turned filmmaker. He was inspired to find Americans concerned about Islamic extremism and take them on a remarkable journey to the Middle East to connect, engage and listen to build mutual understanding.
Tarek is not just behind the documentary but he’s also a part of it. It started with a simple idea:
What would happen if you brought together two groups of people from two different cultures, often presented by politicians and mass media as mutually hostile?– Tarek Mounib, Free Trip to Egypt
With his connections to Egypt, he already had his Muslim Arabic participants lined up. The only question was where to find people who might have fear or hostility against this group. And for that, he headed to the heart of America, where he made frequent stops at political rallies for Trump.
At first, I was worried this would be a documentary taking aim at the conservative heartland – the small towns and voters of Middle America, painting them as small-minded idiots.
And of course, there were plenty of small-minded idiots. The ones that think all Muslims are bad or all Muslims want to behead Americans. As you might expect, they all declined when he literally offered them a free, all-expenses paid trip to Egypt.
But there were plenty of people that said YES.
The Cast of Characters
Much like reality TV, you want participants that will not necessarily create drama but that will make and keep the story interesting. And I suspect that was part of the casting for the participants who would be traveling to Egypt:
Ellen and Terry – A middle class couple from Pennsylvania; Ellen is Jewish and was a 1960s liberal who “protested everything intolerant” but recalled her post-9/11 transformation before the trip, “I’m so racist now, I can’t stand myself.” The fact that she recognized her authentic feelings while still acknowledging she didn’t want to feel that way immediately made her someone relatable on so many levels.
Jenna and Jason – While not a romantically linked couple, Jenna, a former beauty queen, and Jason, an evangelical preacher went on the trip not so much as a way to enlighten themselves but as a way to spread the word of God.
Brian – Brian is a former Marines veteran. Although friends with Jenna and Jason, he seemed to be genuinely open to expanding his ideas about life in Egypt.
Mark – Mark is an African-American police officer. He’s subtle and soft-spoken and sees through people’s BS.
Katie – A female veteran of the Marines from Nebraska, Katie is a shy single mother of two boys.
Each person was placed with a family that was almost the mirror image of themselves. Whether it was a modern dancer or an orthodox Muslim family or a shy quiet photojournalist, they each found themselves who hosts who, although so very different, also had a lot of common ground.
Why You Should Watch ‘A Free Trip to Egypt’
When I traveled to a Muslim country last year, I had much of the fear and trepidation of some of these participants. And also like them, it was the fear that drove to me to have first hand experiences. I learned that humans are humans, no matter where you roam.
There are definitely ideological differences and certainly cultural differences. But there is always common ground to be found. And like me, the participants in this project (and in Egypt) all returned as changed people.
Pledge to Listen
September is Pledge to Listen Month. The makers of Free Trip to Egypt will join together with a range of partners to mark a combined celebration of the International Day of Listening, the UN’s International Day of Peace, and the beginning of the international month of Unity.
Here’s how you can join in and help fight stereotypes. The first step is taking the “Pledge to Listen”:
- Practice active listening – Next time someone says something you disagree with, see if you can restate what they said accurately, without judgement or criticism. Start with, “What I hear you saying is …” and ask if you’re correct, to ensure you’ve really listened and understood them.
- Visit a community unlike your own – Find a community organization or house of worship with members who are different from you. Call and ask if visitors are welcome and check it out. Experience a new culture and food in an ethnic neighborhood restaurant. Be open to talking to people unlike yourself and again — just listen.
- Host someone from another country – Perhaps your community has an organization for foreign exchange students or a cultural group that hosts visitors or refugees from around the world. See if you can host a dinner or gathering to welcome the person and ask them about their country and way of life.
- Listen to your neighbor – Is there someone in your neighborhood you seldom speak with, possibly because they seem different from you? Make the effort to get to know that person a little. Share something you’ve made or just stop by and say hello, reintroducing yourself. If they say something you don’t like, just listen. Avoid the temptation to jump in and argue.
And look for opportunities to attend a screening of “Free Trip to Egypt” or host your own screening. It’s a documentary that will make you smile and laugh and cry and hopefully give you perspective without necessarily traveling to Egypt.