The Anti-Sacha Baron Cohen

Tarek Mounib brings Muslims and conservative Americans together. Empathy ensues

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Free Trip to Egypt
Roxy Theatre
Opens Friday 9

The initial premise of the documentary Free Trip to Egypt is reminiscent of candid camera TV shows and overcooked James Patterson thrillers: a stranger offers you an all-paid vacation to Egypt. Would you take it?

The twist here is that the offer is as earnest as it is real. The benefactor is Tarek Mounib, a Canadian-Egyptian entrepreneur who — upon witnessing the ever-growing divide between the Muslim world and the United States — decided to battle prejudice and misconceptions by taking a group of conservative Americans to the (more or less) secular Muslim nation.

Mounib’s group of seven travellers includes Christians, Jews, Trump supporters, members of the military, a beauty queen and a cop. Turns out it’s harder to give away a free trip than get Americans and Egyptians to mingle amicably.

Tarek financed the whole enterprise from his own pocket and if there was an ulterior motive beyond fostering understanding, I wasn’t able to find it. He sees the film not as a fish-out-of-water comedic documentary, but as a tool to dip thousands in a different culture and create bridges between Americans and the Muslim world.

I talked over the phone with Tarek a couple of weeks ago. While he was the driving force of Free Trip to Egypt, Mounib outsourced the doc’s direction as he lacked film experience at the time.

Early in the film you attend a Trump rally to recruit people for your project. I’m curious about how you managed to remain positive in that context.

Actually, I had my faith in humanity renewed. I was expecting the stereotype, everybody saying racist things, “send her back”, “lock her up” or whatever. Most of the people I spoke to didn’t seem bigoted, and those who said bigoted things, did it from a place of concern for their family. There was a dialogue and I realized the 60 million people who voted for Trump didn’t do it because he said racist things, but for many other reasons.

What was the lowest point then?

Not getting people to participate. When we put it on social media, 90 to 95 per cent of the comments were not “no, thank you” but “those people are savages”, “this is a ploy to cut people’s heads off”. Just horrible things. I was really worried we had reached the point people were so close-minded we were heading for a real war.

What was the main logistical challenge of the enterprise?

To get the right group of Americans. It was quite a challenge to find that sweet spot: people who were close-minded or had strict views, yet were open enough to participate. In the end, even though we managed to find quite a few, half of them decided not to go. Not because of fear of terrorism, but of looking bad on camera.

Who do you think got most out of the trip?

Most people would agree Ellen and Terry’s story was the most powerful (a sexagenarian couple fearful they had become racists since 9/11). What’s interesting is that many people come to me and say “Jason and Jenna — the Christian missionaries — they didn’t change at all: they were zealots in the beginning and zealots at the end.” I don’t think that’s fair. Jason changed quite a bit in his connection to Muslims. He still calls me up once a week to tell me how much I changed his life.

I also felt the Christian missionaries didn’t relate to their Egyptian counterparts as equals.

They definitely had a different way of relating. The first three days in Egypt I was debating Jason non-stop. I would say “don’t you see there is beauty in other religions and spiritual experiences?” He couldn’t see it, and that bothered me. Then I realized I too was trying to convert him. I thought, “why do I care so much? He is not violent, why do I need to change him?” Then I let go and realized Jason is an amazing guy. Accepting people the way they are, that was a big lesson for me.

Did the outcome meet your expectations?

I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was an experiment. I was genuinely curious if people would connect. I was very pleased a movie came out of it, but the transformation, I never imagined … Free Trip to Egypt led to the “Pledge to Listen”, a grassroots movement in which we’re using the film to bring people together to talk about the important issues. Do you know the Sacha Baron-Cohen series, Who Is America?

Yes, actually.

Did you see the episode when he goes to Kingman, Arizona and announces they’ll be the lucky recipients of a state-of-the-art brand-new mosque?

It was very uncomfortable.

I admit it was funny but doesn’t bring people together. We called Kingman, Arizona, and offered a screening. Of course they said “no way, we’ve been burned by this guy, we don’t trust anybody”. After weeks of pushing, they finally agreed. It was so amazing, people really opened up. One of them said “your next movie needs to be Free Trip to Kingman, and I’m inviting the Egyptians to stay with me.”