Q&A with Tarek Mounib, Producer of Free Trip To Egypt film

 Interviewer:  How and when did the idea for this film originally come to you?

Tarek: Well, the original idea came towards the end of 2016, where it seems like there was a lot of hate filled rhetoric and suspicion and fear and all these things that were really plaguing us at the end of that year. And just like everyone else, I was also affected by it and wondering constantly what could I do to make some sort of positive contribution. And then the idea just came to me when I was sitting on a tram in Zurich. The whole vision of approaching Americans and kindness and instead of fear and trying to create some sort of bridge. And yeah, the inspiration came at the end of 2016 and it stayed for a while. And then at the beginning of 2017 is when we really started, yeah, creating the project and moving forward.

Interviewer:  I know you’re personally of Egyptian heritage, but were born and raised in Canada and have more recently lived in Switzerland. How much traveling had you personally done to this region? And what was your initial impression of it?

Tarek: Well, I have been traveling to Egypt since I was a baby. We would spend many, many summers there as children. My mother would take my sister and I and sometimes my father would come and would spend the entire summer school vacation over there. So Egypt is a second home for me. And I identify quite a bit with Egyptians and I identify quite a bit obviously, as as a Canadian. And growing up in Canada, I feel Canada is my home.

Tarek: And yeah, I think that’s part of what really drives me to do what I’m doing. It’s when I see the suspicion, whether it’s from Egyptians towards Americans or vice versa, it’s seeing two people who I consider family disagreeing and not understanding each other and not seeing the beauty of the other person. So something in me just wants to say, “Hey, wake up the these people are nice too. We’re all part of the same family.” And I think it’s easier for me to maybe see that because I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up in both societies. And now Europe as well.

Interviewer: What role does politics play in American’s understanding of Islam?

Tarek: Well, I think politics in general, there are politicians that want to serve. And I really believe that. I think there are really good politicians that I’ve seen. And of course, there are also politicians that want power and manipulation. So they’ll just use any narrative to get people to believe what they want. So I think Islam has been used as the new enemy and as a way to create fear. And this has really, I think, tinged a lot of people’s view and made them afraid of Muslims. And it’s not just one way, because in the Arab world you also see fear and manipulation being used as well. And then you see a lot of Egyptians being afraid of Americans. And I think the really important point of this film is it was never about just breaking down stereotypes that Americans had of Egyptians. It was just as much the reverse. And it was just as much about Egyptians seeing the Americans the way they were. So we were really trying simply to just bring people together and see what happens when people connect as humans.

Interviewer: Were you surprised at how difficult it was to find people to go on this journey? How many submissions did you ultimately receive?

Tarek: Well, when I first started the project, we put it on social media. We put a YouTube video and we offered people a free trip to Egypt and spread the idea as far and wide as we could. The reactions I got in the beginning were extremely surprising because it wasn’t just, no, I don’t want to go. It was like they were just angry at me. Do you think I’m crazy? Do you think I want to be taken hostage? I will never meet with those savages and a lot of hate, I was really surprised about that. And to the point where I thought, “Oh my God, where have we come? What world do we live in now that just simply a trip triggers such hostility?”

Tarek: And it was only until I actually traveled myself to the United States and met Americans that my faith in humanity and in Americans was renewed. Because it’s always a different story when you listen to the news or you hear people or interact with people’s Internet personalities, that’s a completely different world than when you actually face to face talk to people. And even if they have views that are different than yours, you can at least connect on a human level. So even then it was still difficult to get submissions. And what actually surprised me was that the reason was not fear of safety or things of that sort. The biggest fear was looking bad. They were worried that they would look bad on camera or we would portray them in a bad way. And that made a lot of people that wanted to come on the trip say no in the end.

Tarek: So in the end we did receive quite a few submissions, but a lot of the submissions were just people who have traveled the world already and just wanted a free trip to Egypt. And we were really looking for people who hadn’t had much traveling, were genuinely curious or concerned and were ready to do some exploration.

Interviewer: Was there a similar apprehension on the part of the Americans Egyptian counterparts?

Tarek: Well actually, the Egyptian counterparts, first of all, I don’t think it’s a parallel situation because we’re taking Americans out of their homes and bringing them to foreign country. While in Egypt, we were asking the hosts to welcome Americans and show them their homes. So it’s hard to compare. And to be honest, when we told Egyptians about the idea that Americans are coming over and would you be interested in showing them their homes? They loved the idea. I mean there was no shortage of hosts. People were really excited. Because I think it’s something nice to actually receive guests and show them what you’re all about and talk and so. So it’s a different experience and we had a lot of interest.

Interviewer:  Do you know how many of the Americans are still in touch with their Egyptian counterparts? Other than Ellen, do you know if any of them have been back to Egypt or have plans to visit?

Tarek: Well, it’s actually really moving because I think all of them are in touch with their Egyptian counterparts and many of us are in touch with each other. The Americans were in touch with each other. Ellen had a Thanksgiving dinner the year after the film and she invited Katie, the woman from Arizona that came and me. And then I met them in California for Thanksgiving because it was at Ellen’s sister. So there’s this little mini community that formed and all of them, when I speak to them, I’m still in touch with all of them, just have such fond memories. And they all say, “Yes, I’m going to go back to Egypt one day.” Or, “I’m going to bring my Egyptian friends over, I really want to do that.” So it’s really amazing. And one sees that in the film. It’s just amazingly powerful how 10 days, it was only 10 days, could lead to such powerful, transformative friendships.

Interviewer: Was any follow-up done with the Egyptian participants to see what they took away from the experience?

Tarek: I went back to Egypt a few times and I did meet with the Egyptians. We never really did a debrief with the Egyptians, but of course we talk about it. And I think most of the Egyptians, they didn’t have a lot of exposure to Americans. So this is really eye opening for them as well. And all of them seemed very moved by the whole event and learning. And I mean, you even see it in the film, there was one scene where Asmaa, the Egyptian host, was telling Katie how much her mother loved her, loved Katie. And that she was the first American she meant. And now she really wants to meet other Americans and she wants to learn more. And I think that’s really happened not only to the hosts, but to their families, et cetera. So it was really nice to also see how the Egyptians were impacted by the Americans.

Interviewer:  What would you say is the most important takeaway from the making of this film? Not just for the American and Egyptian participants, but for you personally?

Tarek: Well, for me personally, it really renewed this whole activity of going to the United States, facing people that I was actually afraid of and speaking to them on a human level and then meeting them and taking them to Egypt, et cetera. This whole process really released a lot of fear inside me. And made me, renewed my faith in humanity actually, and made me believe that it is possible for people with radically different views on politics and religion, which are the major things that cause a lot of war, to live in peace and not only live in peace, but actually connect in a very deep way. And we didn’t, I don’t, and we never even asked people if we changed their political beliefs because that wasn’t the point and that wasn’t relevant to us. But people with such radically different political beliefs and religious beliefs and culturally different and economic background and education completely different, when they connected at a human level, they were able to live and coexist in peace and didn’t have to change their political views to fit in with each other.

Tarek: So that was really inspiring for me. And the film also forced me and this whole journey to look at my own prejudices. And there were times where I was engaged in debates with some of the stronger Christians, asking them is not possible that that people with other views can go to heaven, et cetera. And it really bothered me that they held these views that I felt were really radical. Until I finally realized, you know what, if they’re not harming anybody, let them have their views. And who am I to try to convert them to my views? Right? So I finally released that and when I was able to release that, I was able to really see the beautiful people that they were. Right?

Tarek: Jason, for example, invites homeless people to his house. He prays for people on the street. He’s genuinely concerned about human beings and he’s very courageous in the way he approaches people. So, now Jason and I are our close friends and I can really just enjoy him without having to change him. So that was also a major takeaway for me.

Interviewer:  Did you experience any synchronicity or serendipity when you created your film? If so, how?

Tarek: Well, I think this whole journey was synchronistic, blessed, whatever you wish to use. Because I could not have simply, I mean, I don’t, I could not have simply created this film and journey by myself. I was really lucky that it attracted very interesting people from the beginning on to help implement the film. Some really talented people came on board very quickly. Then events kind of flowed, finding the Americans. We randomly just approached Brian and I asked him if he wanted to come to Egypt after two minutes and he said yes. So there were many examples of things like that happening.

Tarek: And then of course then came many obstacles that we had to overcome. So I felt this project is much bigger than me and the project is more using me, that I belong to the project than that the project belongs to me.

Interviewer: Tell me more about the Pledge To Listen. What is it and what do you hope to achieve?

Tarek: Well, the Pledge To Listen was basically inspired by the film. I was saying before, one of my major takeaways, it renewed my belief and trust in my faith in humanity. And I think because so many diverse groups, diverse people could live together in harmony. And I felt, I really felt what was really the reason behind that. And I felt it was really just simple human listening, listening with the heart, connecting, feeling who we are as human beings. And then I was feeling, well, we’re going to, many people hopefully, are going to see this film and let’s all connect with this Pledge To Listen.

Tarek: So, let’s look at our own, each of us, which I did, right? I was saying that I was not listening and I was trying to force my views. And I felt when I let go of that and just simply listened to the different views in front of me, then I didn’t have this need to convince or to change the person. And I’m really hoping that people will simply join this concept. Because what I’ve also noticed is that I spoke to a lot of people across the United States from the left, from the right, Trump supporters, anti-Trump, Democrats, Republicans, religious, nonreligious, all that. And what everyone held in common was this basically, this view that we can no longer talk to each other. And everyone seemed fed up with this polarity. And I think, what we all are yearning for is the days where you could argue with your friend at the kitchen table about a deep political view and not just feel that you hate each other in the end.

Tarek: So the Pledge To Listen is about joining up all those people who just simply want to see more listening and kindness in the world and join all those people up that want to see that we can talk and listen to each other. And that we don’t have to change each other and we can come together regardless of all our beliefs. Right? So that’s what I’m hoping to do is create this network of people who are interested in that and then create more dialogue with each other.

Tarek: So what we’re doing on June 12th is we’re organizing what we’re calling the Pledge To Listen day of unity. So we’re partnering with more than 30 national organizations who want to see more listening and kindness in the world. And the idea is June 12th people watch the film and it triggers hopefully the desire to talk and connect. And then the partner organizations, whether it’s the Listen First Project or the National Conversation Project or or many other of these organizations, they will continue the conversation so we can, all of us together bring back the old days of being able to listen and be kind to each other.

Interviewer: What’s next for you? Any plans for a sequel or do you know what your next project will be?

Tarek: The short answer is no, I don’t know what’s coming next. I know what inspires me about this project is the mission of the project, of connecting at a human level, bringing more listening and kindness to the world, bringing more understanding, creating dialogue, bringing different groups together. This is what inspires me. So my next project will be along that lines. It’ll continue in that form. At the moment, I’m really focused on creating dialogue and listening through this film. So it’s going to occupy a lot of my time for the coming months and I expect the next project will just be an evolution of that.