interview by S.L. Wisenberg
The offer was straightforward: A free ten-day trip to Egypt. The catch was, to be chosen for the trip you couldn’t be eager to go. The voyage was for non-Muslims who were wary of Muslims or outright anti-Muslim, but were open to meeting them in Egypt, and most importantly, listening to them.
ACM editor S.L. Wisenberg interviewed Tarek Mounib, who had the idea for the trip, carried it out, and made a movie about it. The documentary Free Trip to Egypt had about 500 one-day national showings in June, followed by discussions, with more screenings in about twenty cities since. Mounib is following up by asking people to pledge to listen to those they disagree with during September; that month there will be more screenings.
The film follows Mounib as he chooses seven Americans for the trip–a teacher, a police officer, two Marine Corps veterans, a missionary, a retired GM manager, and a former Miss Kentucky—and documents their trepidations, interactions with Egyptians, and reflections. All are white except the police officer, who is African-American.
In the phone interview Mounib talked about why a worldly Canadian-Swiss CEO traveled from California to New York inviting strangers to his family’s homeland, and how he learned to love fundamentalist Christians. The transcript has been edited.
ACM: At the beginning of the movie, you’re on the tram and you’re in Zurich and you’re disheartened by the polarity in the U.S. Were you disheartened by the Trump election and Trump rallies?
Mounib: It wasn’t just Trump. It was the end of 2016, Trump had just gotten elected, and so I think the whole atmosphere around Trump’s election was very scary because you had on the right some of these extremists with white supremacy stuff. And on the other side you had the left with this righteous indignation. They weren’t listening, so you have this split in the world where the two parties are just going at each other’s throats, like some sort of war. That wasn’t really affecting me personally in my personal life but I read about it and watched the news.
The lesson for me when I started traveling in the U.S. and speaking to people, whether it was at the Trump rally in Louisville or in the heart of liberal America in downtown Manhattan, it’s much different when you connect at a human level. And you realize people aren’t as scary as they seem on the news, there’s actually hope. People have certain views even about building walls, etc., but that doesn’t mean they’re racist, it means they’re genuinely afraid. Of course there were the weird, psychotic people but the majority of people it seemed to me were reasonable and kind, even the ones who hold certain views. That was my learning process throughout this journey.
How did people read you? Did they think, “This is a Muslim”? I thought you looked Jewish. We’re Semites, right?
So here you are with your MAGA hat at a rally and you speak American/Canadian English, who did they think you were?
At the MAGA rally I don’t think anyone realized I was Muslim until the conversation got a little bit deeper but you saw in the film little glimpses into that, I just asked surface questions in the beginning and if there was complete closure the conversation wouldn’t get anywhere. That’s the thing, I don’t actually experience a lot of racism and polarity against myself. It’s not something I’m doing because of my personal experience. So I felt very safe in the MAGA rallies.
The most hostility I got in the MAGA rallies was when I crossed over in my MAGA hat to say hello to the anti-Trump supporters.
That’s was scary. [Laughs.] Some of them were nice and some of them were really horrible. Like, “Go away, I don’t want to talk to you, you’re just a racist.”
And I’m like, “Excuse me.”
I think Trump has made it easier for bigots to come out of the woodwork. Maybe you don’t want to go on record blaming Trump for it.
Look, independent of Trump, if there’s racist, or any type of rhetoric that’s insulting people, such as minorities, I think the natural reaction is that we get angered, we start insulting back. I understand that, it’s a natural instinct. What’s I’m saying is that does not actually transform them. And we had a beautiful example of that. Did you follow Sacha Baron Cohen’s TV series Who Is America?
I saw his first film. I was thinking that people might be afraid that that’s what you were going to be doing.
Exactly. He went to Kingman, Arizona, and he told the people in Kingman, Arizona, that there was going to be a brand-new state-of-the-art mosque. He made the people of Kingman look like idiots, racists, backward. It’s funny. It identifies a problem, but it doesn’t bring us together. At the end of last year we reached out to Kingman and of course they didn’t trust us. It took a lot of phone calls. We said, “Let’s do a screening in your town.” We screened the film, and people were so moved. We were moved, there was brilliant conversation afterwards. The mayor of Kingman wrote us a wonderful letter. I think it is really important that we actually do something positive to bring people together because if you just point and laugh, you’re not bringing people together.
Sacha Baron Cohen is a genius. He’s funny. There’s a place for him.
How many people did you get applications from?
Maybe a hundred but some of those applications you could tell were people who traveled the world and just would enjoy Egypt as a travel destination. By the nature of it you didn’t actually want to take the people who wanted to go.. That was the paradox, the challenge we had. We had to find the sweet spot–it’s not exactly what they would have done on their own but they were open enough to explore. And there wasn’t anyone else that was in that sweet spot that we didn’t take. A number of people canceled, not because of fear of terrorism, but fear of looking bad in front of the camera, being portrayed as racist.
You grew up in Canada. Did you grow up religious at all or more secular Muslim—or ethnic?
I guess my family is more progressive Muslim, that’s how I grew up. I had a religious phase in my teens where I really was practicing the religion and felt it was the true path for everyone. And then in my early twenties I crashed over the concept of religion and Islam and all that. Then in my mid-twenties, late twenties, I discovered my own kind of spirituality and developed a respect for lslam and for all religions
Are you pan-religious? I assume that must have come up in individual conversations.
The thing is, it does come up for me. I have no problem saying, “I am Muslim” but a lot of times when people hear that they think that means you’re just Muslim. And I guess you could say pan-religious. I love Christianity, I meditate, I’ve been inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, so I see wisdom in all religions, so culturally I was raised where Islamic symbolism resonates with me but I see beauty in all religious.
And what were the views of the Egyptians when you approached them and said, “Will you be a host family for these Americans?”
There was a lot more excitement and enthusiasm from the Egyptians. we had so many people who wanted to be a host, to welcome the Americans. A lot of people don’t realize this but a lot of Egyptians–and Europeans for that matter, even though the Europeans will never admit it–have this admiration for Americans. There was a real desire to meet Americans and show them their homes.
Did they have preconceived notions?
Just imagine if you just saw American films what impression of America you would have. And you saw some of the Egyptians were very secular.
It was great, you had the woman who was totally covered, and then you had the woman on the motorcycle.
That’s Egypt, right?
And these are things that just worked out. It’s not like we had a token this and a token that.
Because America is so diverse and Egypt is so diverse you just end up getting diverse people.
We were just lucky that way, I think.
Do you have relatives in Egypt?
Yeah, I have relatives, friends, I also do business in Egypt so I felt comfortable bringing people to Egypt because I sometimes bring customers who are in Europe and the United States to show them around. That gave me the confidence that I know what I’m getting into.
What do you do in Zurich?
I have software companies. In one of the software companies we have local Swiss developers. The other one we do offshoring for developers who are in Egypt. And I have a health center I run here in Switzerland with other smaller projects.
[Laughs.] Basically I moved here with my ex-wife about sixteen or seventeen years ago. Also I have an interest in psychology. I studied at the Carl Jung Institute here.
From what I’ve read about Jung, he talks about the shadow. Did you apply the Jungian thought to what you were doing, the way we see people as other?
There are definitely elements of that. It’s not just Jung who talks about that but that’s a Jungian concept– projecting our fears on the other and not looking at ourselves. This whole film was actually taking responsibility for your own view of people. I think that’s what makes it film accessible to people. It’s not a film about educating. I’m learning as much as anyone else.
It’s a film about exploring and realizing these fears you think you don’t have but you do. We all have them and here we were confronting them and seeing what happens.
Have you spent a lot of time in the U.S. or mostly Europe?
Some of my customers are in the U.S. I don’t spend a lot of time there. Maybe once or twice a year. My sister lives in the United States. I was born and raised in Canada. We would do a lot of road trips to the United States. We grew up on American television so I feel a connection with the United States. So I’m always watching American news. That’s why I went to America, because it does feel like home to me though it’s not where I grew up.
I’ve read that you’re going to show the film in the Arab world and Europe.
We’re starting with theatrical screenings in Canada, and we’re at early stages talking to people in Europe to see how we can plan a release.
Considering how anti-immigrant a lot of Europe is, are you expecting there might be some pushback from France and maybe Germany, Poland, that people would say, “Oh we don’t want to see something about Muslims” because they’re anti-Muslim?
[Laughs.] Well that’s interesting coming from the United States because I’m not sure if Europe is actually more anti-immigration than the United States. Interestingly enough the biggest television station in Germany’s daily news program was just so fascinated by our project they asked for the film and they did reportage. I got so much positive feedback from Germans, saying, “We really like this film, when is it going to come?” so I think it will screen in Germany, Switzerland, France–Europe is very similar to the United States, you have pockets of anti-immigrant sentiment, you’ve got a lot of people sick and tired of that, even people who want to see strong laws for immigration. They don’t like to see the polarity and dogma and all the hate that’s coming.
Are you looking for anything concrete, like you want to ease legislation against immigration, are you trying to get more down to a psychological spiritual level where people are opening up to each other?
More the latter. I think my task and what I’ve seen the movie do is create this clarity in the way the conversation is happening with just … more respect toward each other. That’s why I don’t think it’s important what my political views are and also some people criticized us because we didn’t ask the Americans if their political views changed afterwards. For me that’s exactly missing the point of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to see if we connect at a human level, beyond political and religious views. And that’s what was achieved. I think from that place comes true change and true harmony which I think we’re all yearning for.
I read that you’re still in touch with the people who went to Egypt and you see each other for Thanksgiving.
We’re all in touch, the Egyptians as well. Some are more in touch than others.
I’ve read that you had trouble with the fundamentalist Christians who said only Christians go to heaven but then you dropped that and just kind of let it go.
Yeah exactly-–that really bothered me that one was saying that Christianity was the only way. He just couldn’t acknowledge or be open to the idea that maybe there are other beautiful spiritual experiences.
I had days and days of debate until I asked myself, “Why do I care so much?” and that led to a shift inside me. If someone is not violent or hateful there’s no reason to fight against that view. Let him (Reynolds) have that view, right. I know when I let go of trying to convert him, everything relaxed. He relaxed and we became really good friends. We joke now. He helps the homeless, he’s just a great guy, right. I couldn’t see that when I was on the attack in my quest to open his eyes, right.