Free Trip To Egypt


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Free Trip To Egypt
"You're guaranteed to leave this film feeling better than you did before it started."

It's well known that nothing breaks down prejudice as effectively as spending time with the people one is prejudiced against. What if one could take Islamophobic Americans and fly them to Egypt for a holiday on which they would meet Egyptian people and discover the things they have in common? That's the idea that Canadian-Egyptian entrepreneur Tarek Mounib had, and Ingrid Serban's documentary follows his efforts to make it a reality, in the process inviting viewers to rethink the prejudices they may have - about Egyptians and about a certain sort of American.

For people with little direct experience of that section of US culture, some of the opinions people hold will be shocking. Granted, Tarek does himself no favours by wandering round shouting "Free trip to Egypt, anyone?" like a time share salesman, and one can understand that people are wondering what the catch is, but it's bizarre to see people convinced that if they go there they'll be kidnapped and held hostage or have their throats slit, people who sincerely believe that most Egyptians - and Middle Easterners in general - are terrorists. What we hear over and over again is that they picked up these beliefs from the news. Surrounded by others who hold similar notions, they have nothing to prompt them to question this. Strangers doing so immediately arouse suspicion.

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In the face of this, it's difficult for Tarek to find recruits. Several of those he does find already have personal reasons to think a little differently. A elderly Jewish couple have a son who works in the Middle East and are ready to face their fears about the region because, perhaps, it's easier than trying to cope with their boy being somewhere that sounds scary but which they know little about. A former soldier simply loves travel and finds the idea of a bit of danger more exciting than off-putting. Others simply feel that they want to understand the world for themselves and not be told what to think. For all of them, the journey and the experience of being matched up with local people who show them around and take them into their homes is a revelation. Not one of them seems to have expected to admire modern Egypt or to make friends there.

Does Tarek achieve what he set out to? This is less certain. His experiment tells us nothing about the potential of average xenophobic Americans to change their views. With so much money thrown at it and all involved making a sincere effort to engage, it was never really likely to go wrong and, indeed, viewers who share the fears we encounter at the start may feel that they're watching a piece of propaganda that doesn't reveal the real Egypt at all. To an extent this is true, in that the working class is largely absent from the picture and we only ever venture outside the city to visit the pyramids. We don't meet Egyptians who are xenophobes themselves.

What the film does do, and what makes it rewarding to watch, is show us this select group of people discovering that the world is a nicer place than they thought and having their lives enriched by the experience of a different culture and fresh ideas. The joy this brings is palpable and you're guaranteed to leave this film feeling better than you did before it started. The change is particularly marked in the case of one older man whom Tarek continues to track over the next three years in the film's epilogue. Letting go of the fear he has lived with throughout his life changes his perspective on everything, with family members saying he's become a new man. it's personal stories like this, if anything, that reach people and make them think, well, maybe there's something in it.

Reviewed on: 03 Apr 2019
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A feature length documentary film following one man's search for random Americans concerned about an Islamic threat who are prepared to travel and meet Egyptians face to face.

Director: Ingrid Serban

Starring: Tarek Mounib, Jenna Day, Ahmed Hassan, Adam Saleh, Salma Salem, Ellen Decker, Terry Decker

Year: 2018

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Switzerland, Egypt, US


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