Canadian-born Muslim Tarek Mounib had lived most of his life with a cultural double-identity. One day, he suddenly had the idea to offer any willing participants in the US a free trip to Egypt and to film the experience, aiming to help people better understand the culture in light of 9/11 and growing Islamophobia. And in July 2017, seven American citizens took him up on the offer and traveled to a country that has become increasingly under fire in the media in a bid to expand their cultural horizons.
It’s immediately obvious how much care has gone into making this film, and for that reason I think it’s well deserving of time and attention. Films such as this will always attract negative criticism and the cynical might argue that it’s simply a case of white middle-class Americans finding themselves abroad, a better-packed reality TV show. But I don’t think that’s the case here: this is a film about opening up your mind to new cultures, even when there are clashes within the group of tourists, and between Egyptian Muslims themselves. Free Trip to Egypt is the unique story of a group of people open-minded enough to challenge their own preconceptions on serious issues.
Free Trip To Egypt
Director: Ingrid Serban; created by Tarek Mounib
Release date: May 31 2019
Rating: Not rated
Part talking heads, part fly-on-the-wall, this documentary is a unique look at one man’s brave — and, self-admittedly, perhaps naive — venture to bring together US residents on an all-expenses-paid trip of a lifetime to Egypt, spending time with locals and living in another culture to break down the barriers circulated by the media. Sound too good to be true? Many other people thought so, too. When Tarek first suggests the idea via an online video, the similarities between this and an extremist or cult-leader manifesto were painfully clear. One participant’s father described it as ‘a ploy to sell my daughter into sex slavery’. Yet after a disastrous first video and attempts to stand in New York City with a banner reading ‘FREE TRIP TO EGYPT’, the venture started to gain traction.
Tarek is invited to appear on a radio show, a platform which brings in his first responders. Later, he attends a Trump rally — an absurdity in itself — where he’s permitted to speak onstage and to invite anyone who might be interested in coming on the journey with him and the crew. In this painfully far-right event, Tarek is incredibly brave (or foolhardy) to extend his olive branch. Eventually, after an overwhelmingly negative response in person and online, he’s able to bring together seven Americans from different walks of life who choose to take him up on the offer.
From the very beginning of the documentary, Tarek’s motives are questioned. He pauses — “I wasn’t expecting that question!” — then laughs. “I could give you the Miss America answer, the fact that I want world peace…all I had was an idea that came to me with such power that I couldn’t say no.” This short opening segment shows that it wasn’t just a publicity stunt for Tarek, but as an entrepreneur branching out on his own, it was a personal conviction, making the experience all the more powerful.
The people that choose to travel to Egypt are individuals with different views and motivations. There are Ellen and Terry Decker, an older couple from Maryland who admit that they’ve become ‘so racist’ since 9/11 that they want to change their outlook on the world. There is Katie Appeldorn, a Marine Corps veteran and single mother of two living in Arizona. From Louisville there are Brian Kopilec, a Corporal in the Marines and self-confessed thrill-seeker, Jason Reynolds, a Christian pastor, actress Jenna Day, and policeman and single father Marc Spalding. Their backgrounds are diverse but they soon find a lot in common.
It’s clear when the group first meets that there are nerves, but these are gradually diminished as they travel through Cairo. The travelers are then paired up with locals whom Tarek has set them up with to guide them for the 10-day trip. The dynamic works surprisingly well for those with radically different worldviews: the Deckers, who are Jewish, are paired with cinematographer Ahmed Hassan, who introduces them to his family. Jason and Jenna, who are both Christians, are matched with the Makdor family, traditionalist Muslims (all three of the women present wear burkas) — and so on. I enjoyed seeing them take day trips and learn about each other’s lives, though an even more in-depth look at this would be welcome.
The most touching encounter is between Katie Appeldorn and Asmaa Gamal, a photojournalist. Katie admits that she’s quite reserved but so is Asmaa, so the pairing works well. When speaking to Asmaa’s family and sharing news of her youngest son, Katie breaks down into tears when describing how her first husband was responsible for injuring him as a baby. Asmaa’s mother, despite the language barrier, at once shows deep concern and compassion for Katie, embracing her as her own daughter. It’s an authentic and moving scene, showing that even across cultures we’re all still human and can relate to each other as friends and family.
Predictably, some tensions within the group become apparent. A discussion on Trump goes awry in a house setting, tangibly cooling the atmosphere. When the Americans are taken to see a witchcraft ritual, the Makdor family attending with them express their discomfort with the appropriation of their beliefs in that setting. And even between the Americans and their host Tarek there are vastly different worldviews, with some individuals even towards the end unable to shift their views for good, showing their unshakable religious fervour. I felt as though some, by asking Tarek if he’d considered converting to their religion, had missed the point — to embrace other views and to be tolerant and respectful of everyone’s individual choices.
Yet for all this, it was a thought-provoking narrative with compelling stories and an insight into the lives that wouldn’t otherwise get theatrical exposure. I felt as though it could have benefited even more from an explanation of each host family’s history and culture, in the same way that we were given profiles of the travelers from the US.
And I regret to say that it’s not a happy ending for everyone — some stories are truly sad and must be seen to be believed. Equally, there wasn’t a clear call to action at the end of the film, except to encourage each other to behave more respectfully towards others. But with the time available, the filmmakers have crafted an original and moving story with a powerful message, showing that even a group of strangers can find freedom from their cultural preconceptions.