The 2016 American election was, let’s say, a weird time for everybody. Americans were more divided than ever; Canadians were watching in horror from up north; Brexit was happening; and from his home in Switzerland, Canadian-Egyptian entrepreneur Tarek Mounib was growing more and more terrified of the spreading animosity.
Rather than let that terror fester, Tarek set out to see what would happen if he offered Americans the chance to tour a country they’d likely only seen negatively portrayed in the media—and the concept for his new documentary Free Trip to Egypt was born.
The doc follows Tarek and a group of seven Americans, whom he paired with a group of Muslim Egyptians, across 10 days as they were confronted with their preconceived notions and prejudices. We chatted with Tarek about the inspiration for the project, online reaction and how he actually has a hopeful outlook for the future.
What was the genesis of the project?
I was watching a lot of North American news from Switzerland and it was scary. And it looked like we were headed for WWIII and some really radical things. So I felt like I was developing a fear of Americans which was really strange growing up in North America. And I said, ‘I don’t want to live with that type of fear.’ So I was thinking, what would happen if I actually went out and met the people I thought were afraid of me and did something kind for them?
You went to Trump rallies—did you ever feel like you were putting your own safety at risk?
Yeah there was a little bit of concern [from family], like, ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy?’ And it’s been a fun process because a lot of people that I told the idea to two years ago were like ‘Okay?’ and kind of looked at me like a sweet child with a dream and now they’re kind of in awe that it actually manifested. I’m still in awe.
Were you at all prepared for the reaction to the idea itself?
I was shocked, surprised. Because first was the online. When we posted [the ad] online, we got so much hate. I didn’t expect it. I thought, if you don’t like the idea, you don’t say anything, right? But no… they think we’re trying to kidnap or kill them, that I have some sort of sinister plan for world domination and it’s just hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. And then every five per cent—’Oh, I like Egypt!’ So that was shocking.
I was genuinely curious—will kindness win? Will people connect? And starting off I thought, ‘Oh, no, okay this is going to be an example of how bad people can be.’ But then when I stepped on American soil and started speaking to people face-to-face, then you get a totally different impression. Even where people might think it would be the worst, like at a Trump rally.
What were your fears going in?
My fear was that this whole thing would just fall apart. I thought maybe some Americans would just land in Egypt and just go off on their own. Even just the camel rides—one of the American participants fell off the camel and was hanging from a thread, literally. So there were just all these things that could have happened and, thank god, didn’t happen.
‘Host some Americans’ isn’t as appealing as ‘Free trip to Egypt.’ How did you find willing hosts?
Ironically enough, the free trip was harder to pitch than hosting Americans. Hosting Americans was so easy because Egyptians, just like Canadians—and we hate to admit this—there’s an admiration towards Americans and Hollywood movies and characters and all of that stuff. It’s the same in Egypt, it’s the same everywhere, so the idea of showing my country to Americans—I had so many people who wanted to do that.
How did you decide who to bring on the trip?
That was really tricky because, by nature, the people who wanted to come weren’t the people you wanted to take so you were really trying to get people who didn’t want to come but were willing enough to explore. Some people say, ‘Because they were there, you’ve done nothing,’ but you spread that word. We’re not individuals, we’re all part of a community. So then they went back to their friends and family, who would never have come, and they were able to spread the message. I had access to people. I had a remarkable conversations in Norfolk, Nebraska at Thanksgiving with extended family.
How did it feel as it seemed people were starting to change their perspectives?
The turning point for me, the most moving point in the film, was when the Egyptian family left, when they were offended by the ceremony and they left. Because I thought everything was going to fall apart at that point, but then when I spoke to them, they were so adamant about staying and being hosts to the end. So it’s really this bizarre thing where the ceremony fell apart, but somehow we didn’t dissolve as a group. It was at that point in time I realized, ‘Okay so we don’t have to share the same opinions or beliefs or we can be offended, and yet, still we managed to continue together.’
And that’s where I thought, ‘Why not the rest of the world?’ Because these are really some of the most diverse opinions we’ll see so if they could do it and we could do it that evening, we were onto something.
What do you want people to take away from Free Trip to Egypt?
There’s hope in the world. It’s that simple. For me, I didn’t feel there was a lot of hope when I started off on this project and it really showed me there’s a lot of hope. And it’s nice because the film is also lighthearted and people think these are such heavy topics, but…it had a lot of comedy. It was just so fun to watch.
What’s next for you?
More conversations. What I realized is—we’ve had so many pre-screenings across the United States and Canada, and the reaction is magical when people are in the theatre and then the conversations that happen afterwards. And the whole start of this conversation with #PledgeToListen all started like that. We brought together amazing people on June 12 in the United States from Trump’s former wife [Marla Maples] to Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Democratic presidential candidate, all together watching the film and talking about a different way of being able to express difference without hating each other. So that’s what’s next for me—really expanding that. And if another film comes out of that, sure.
Free Trip to Egypt will be screening in select theatres across North America over the coming months.