Pledge to listen: How a free trip to Egypt changed lives, attitudes

Houston Chronicle - May 28th, 2019


The familiar phrase “random acts of kindness” has its origins on a placemat in Sausalito in 1982, on which writer Ann Herbert wrote, “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.” The idea took on a life of its own, with stories of strangers buying groceries for others or feeding someone else’s parking meter. The idea is simple: Doing something selfless, with no other thought than to brighten someone’s day, creates a ripple effect. Kindness spreads, making the world a happier place.

But these days, many yearn for more. Divisiveness and distrust in the public discourse can leave people feeling isolated and angry. One man decided to do something about it, taking a big risk by reaching out to others in what might be called a random act of listening.

Canadian-Egyptian entrepreneur Tarek Mounib sought to build a bridge of mutual understanding and friendship with an ambitious project: He offered complete strangers he encountered across the U.S. an all-expenses-paid trip to Egypt, with the sole purpose of connecting with people who might distrust him as a Muslim, allowing them to see for themselves what Egypt is like and to meet ordinary Egyptians. Although his initial attempts to find Americans willing to take him up on his offer were met with suspicion and mistrust, eventually he was able to find people open to the journey.

Mounib captured the life-changing experience by producing a film, “Free Trip to Egypt,” directed by Ingrid Serban. The documentary, in theaters for a premiere event June 12, shows how a small, diverse group of Americans travel to Egypt for the first time. Hosted by Egyptian families, they see Cairo up close and personal — an experience that challenges many of their previously held beliefs and perceptions. The Egyptians' preconceptions about Americans were equally tested.

What happens when a retired teacher and her husband are united with a young Egyptian revolutionary? Or when a Christian missionary and a born-again former Miss Kentucky are housed with an orthodox Muslim family where the mother wears a burqa? Or when a police officer faces off with a radical, left-leaning journalist?

"I had no idea what was going to happen," recalls Mounib. "We encountered conflict, but we all came together and connected. People are really the same wherever you go."

Throughout “Free Trip to Egypt,” Mounib stresses the importance of listening, especially to those you may disagree with, or you may think have nothing in common with you. He discusses a variety of topics with his guests as they travel, always maintaining a respectful openness to learn and try to understand. And the entire experience affects everyone on the trip profoundly.

With the release of “Free Trip to Egypt,” Mounib seeks to start a dialogue by launching a social impact movement and reaching people around the country who may be reluctant to hear other people’s points of view and to inspire everyone to listen to one another, by going online to take the #PledgeToListen.

Here are a few ways you can pledge to listen.

Practice active listening

Next time someone says something you disagree with, see if you can restate what they said accurately, without judgement or criticism. Start with, "What I hear you saying is ..." and ask if you're correct, to ensure you've really listened and understood them.

Listen to your neighbor

Is there someone in your neighborhood you seldom speak with, possibly because they seem different from you? Make the effort to get to know that person a little. Share something you’ve made or just stop by and say hello, reintroducing yourself. If they say something you don't like, just listen. Avoid the temptation to jump in and argue.

Visit a community unlike your own

Find a community organization or house of worship with members who are different from you. Call and ask if visitors are welcome and check it out. Experience a new culture and food in an ethnic neighborhood restaurant. Be open to talking to people unlike yourself and again — just listen.

Host someone from another country

Perhaps your community has an organization for foreign exchange students or a cultural group that hosts visitors or refugees from around the world. See if you can host a dinner or gathering to welcome the person and ask them about their country and way of life.

The “Free Trip to Egypt” film premiere event takes place Wednesday, June 12, at approximately 500 theaters across the U.S. Immediately following the screenings, a 30-minute panel discussion led by celebrities, politicians and thought leaders — including President Trump’s former wife Marla Maples, Congresswoman and 2020 Democratic candidate for president Tulsi Gabbard and internationally recognized speaker/author Rabbi Rami Shapiro, among others — will be streamed into theaters to launch a conversation about how to listen and bring more kindness to the world, asking everyone to take the online #PledgeToListen and bring authentic conversations to the community.

As Mounib says in his Take the Pledge video, “I feel through listening, the world will be a better place." He adds, "We just need to treat each other the way we teach our children to treat each other in kindergarten."