AZiz Abu Sarah and her business partner, Scott Cooper, had one big ambition when they started their travel agency: they wanted to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Well, sort of. It was kind of a joke between the two of them, 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 mediating and resolving international conflicts in places like Syria, Afghanistan and Colombia. Feeling limited by the number of people they could reach through this work, Abu Sarah and Cooper decided to apply their experience in a completely different field: 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 “double-narrative” tour, in which a tour group is led by two guides: one on either side of a conflict or a long-standing division that has affected the region 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 venues 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 know told us that was the dumbest idea,” Abu Sarah said recently from his home in South Carolina. “They thought no one would ever pay to do something like this. But in one year, we proved them wrong.
More than a decade after its inception, Mejdi Tours has welcomed over 20,000 guests and the company now organizes trips to the Balkans, Colombia, Egypt, Morocco, Chile and Costa Rica, among others. During this time, Abu Sarah was named a TED Fellow and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He has also written a book that argues for travel as a force for peace.
The company’s tours have been mostly suspended during the pandemic, but Abu Sarah and Cooper have taken advantage of the downtime to develop or expand several new trips to the United States, including a rights history tour. civics in the American South, an Indigenous tour of the American Southwest, and the “Red/Blue Divide tours” of Washington, DC and Detroit.
When I joined him, Abu Sarah was about to leave to lead a band tour in Egypt. But he took the time to talk about the danger of the single narrative, the power of bringing opposing perspectives together, and what he learned from the toughest journey he’s ever taken.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why is the dual narrative approach so important?
A: In so many places Scott and I had traveled, we always encountered one dominant narrative, and then there were all these other narratives that were never heard in the public sphere. So with our tours, we said to ourselves: “No more unique history. No more single story. We decided to start in Jerusalem, Palestine and Israel, because Scott is Jewish and I am Palestinian, and that’s the area we knew best. And what we’ve seen is that dual storytelling 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 really fall in love with the place you are visiting.
Q: And now you are applying this approach to tours in the United States?
A: I lived in Washington, DC, which is a very segregated city, especially class-wise, and I realized that my friends and I wouldn’t venture out of neighborhoods we already knew. So we started developing a city tour, and we asked a Republican and a Democrat to co-lead it. This first trip was amazing. Looking at the news, you would think that if you put a Republican and a Democrat together, they would just talk to each other. But that was not the case at all. One of the most interesting conversations we had was during 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. At the end, the discussion was about “What is the solution? rather than “You are doing this or that wrong.” It was fascinating. And that’s what happens during our tours in Israel and Palestine. This is what is happening in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.
Q: Many people want to relax when they go on vacation. Why should they choose to take an empowering, dual-narrative journey?
A: It is assumed that when people travel they are not interested in learning. And that’s not true. Even the polls tell us that’s not true. People want to do good when they travel, and they seek culture and connection. I have fun in my travels: I go to museums, I swim in the ocean, I like music, all that. But that’s not all I do. I like to say that traveling is an act of diplomacy: be a diplomat while you travel and go out and meet someone new and listen to their stories. And it’s so much fun! It’s the thing you’ll remember and tell people about when you get back.
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