Q. and A.
‘We tend to think of travel in terms of distance, but I think travel is really a lifestyle, a state of mind,’ says Aziz Abu Sarah of Mejdi Tours, which explores both sides of longstanding conflicts in places like Belfast and Jerusalem.
Aziz Abu Sarah and his business partner, Scott Cooper, had a big ambition when they started their tour company: They wanted to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Well, sort of. It was kind of a joke between the two of them, Mr. Abu Sarah said recently. But the two friends — one a Palestinian who grew up in Jerusalem, the other an American Jew — had worked together in international conflict mediation and resolution in places like Syria, Afghanistan and Colombia. Feeling limited by the number of people they could reach through that work, Mr. Abu Sarah and Mr. Cooper decided to apply their experience in a completely different realm: tourism. Their goal was nothing less than to transform travel — and travelers — into a force for peace.
A defining feature of the tour company they founded in 2009 is the “dual narrative” tour, in which a group of tourists is led by two guides: one from either side of a longstanding conflict or division that has affected the area that the group is visiting. On the company’s tour of Ireland and Northern Ireland, for example, a Unionist and a Nationalist jointly lead the tour of sites around Belfast, Derry and Dublin. And on their tour of the Holy Land, the groups visit Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and Jerusalem accompanied by both a Palestinian Arab and an Israeli Jew.
“Literally, everyone we knew told us this was the dumbest idea,” Mr. Abu Sarah said recently from his home in South Carolina. “They thought that nobody would ever pay to do something like this. But within a year, we proved them wrong.”
More than a decade after its founding, Mejdi Tours has hosted over 20,000 guests, and the company now runs trips to the Balkans, Colombia, Egypt, Morocco, Chile and Costa Rica, among other places. Meanwhile, Mr. Abu Sarah has been named a TED Fellow and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He has also written a book that makes the case for travel as a force for peace.
The company’s tours have been mostly on hold during the pandemic, but Mr. Abu Sarah and Mr. Cooper used the downtime to develop or expand several new trips in the United States, including a history-of-civil-rights tour of the U.S. South, an Indigenous tour of the U.S. Southwest, and “Red/Blue Divide tours” of Washington, D.C., and Detroit.
When I reached him, Mr. Abu Sarah was about to head off to lead a group tour in Egypt. But he took the time to talk about the danger of the single narrative, the power of bringing together opposing perspectives, and what he learned from the hardest trip he’s ever taken.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is the dual narrative approach so important?
In so many places that Scott and I had traveled to, we always came across a single dominant narrative, and then there were all these other narratives that were never given a voice in the public sphere. So with our tours, we thought: “No more single story. No more single narrative.” We decided to start in Jerusalem, Palestine and Israel, because Scott is Jewish and I’m Palestinian, and that’s the area we knew the best. And what we’ve seen is that the dual narrative is so powerful because it gives you the opportunity to hear different opinions, but also to understand the people you meet, to understand their fear and their anger, and to really fall in love with the place you’re visiting.
The discussions must get heated sometimes. Have you ever had problems with tension in the groups?
It’s extremely rare. If there are conflicts, it’s personality oriented, which you would see on any group tour. We have very conservative people and very liberal people coming on the same trips, but because these two guides with different backgrounds are able to hold a conversation, that somehow helps the group to hold these conversations, as well, without starting to fight. So we almost never have a problem between the guests themselves — or between the guides, which was the other worry people had.
And now you’re applying this approach to tours in the United States?
I used to live in Washington, D.C., which is a very segregated city, especially on a class level, and I realized that my friends and I wouldn’t venture out of the neighborhoods we already knew. So we started to develop a tour of the city, and we got a Republican and a Democrat to colead it. That first trip was incredible. Watching the news, you would think that if you put a Republican and a Democrat together, they would just talk past each other. But that wasn’t the case at all. One of the most interesting conversations we had was on a visit to the Heritage Foundation, which is very conservative. Some of the liberal people in the tour group had never had this kind of open conversation with a conservative that wasn’t just sound bites, but a real, productive conversation. By the end of it, the discussion was about “What’s the solution?” rather than “You’re doing this wrong or that wrong.” It was fascinating. And that’s what happens on our tours in Israel and Palestine. That’s what happens in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.
You spent your childhood in a place with a long history of conflict. How has that experience informed this work?
I grew up in Jerusalem, but I never had a real conversation with a Jewish-Israeli person until I was 18 years old. My brother was killed by being beaten up in prison by Israeli soldiers, so I grew up very angry, very much with the idea that the other is evil. And then when I was 18, I decided to study Hebrew because I had to — not because I wanted to. Living in Jerusalem, you can’t survive without Hebrew. I remember walking into the class thinking, “None of these people probably want me to be here.” And I couldn’t have been more wrong. My Hebrew teacher was the most incredible human being. She even tried to speak Arabic to me to make me feel welcome. And that was the first time I felt like I was treated like a human being by the other.
But before that moment, I only knew one narrative of Israel, and many Israelis probably only know one narrative of Palestinians: the one they hear in the news.
Is that what you mean when you say that the most difficult trips can be the ones that are closest to home?
I think it can be much easier to be open to learning about issues or problems that are happening five or six thousand miles away. Often when I talk about my work with Syrian refugees, people will say, “Oh, I would like to go and volunteer with Syrian refugees in Jordan or Turkey.” And I ask them, “Have you volunteered with Syrian refugees in your own community? Because if not, you should start there, and then maybe go to Syria.”
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We tend to think of travel in terms of distance, but I think travel is really a lifestyle, a state of mind. And if you learn to travel in your own community, you’ll learn to travel when you go abroad. For me, the hardest trip I ever took was going from my home in East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem. It’s just a 15- or 20-minute walk, but making that trip brought about the biggest change for me, because it challenged me the most.
Many people want to relax when they go on vacation. Why should they choose to go on a challenging, dual-narrative trip?
There’s an assumption that when people travel, they’re not interested in learning. And that’s not true. Even surveys tell us it’s not true. People want to do good as they travel, and they are looking for culture and connection. I have fun in my travels: I go see museums, I swim in the ocean, I enjoy music, all of that. But that’s not all that I do. I like to say that travel is an act of diplomacy: Be a diplomat as you’re traveling and go out and meet someone new and hear their stories. And it’s so much fun! It’s the thing that you will remember, and that you’ll tell people about when you come back.
Paige McClanahan is the host of The Better Travel Podcast.