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An international peace builder believes sharing each other's stories can help bridge divides

A man stands with his arms spread on a snowy mountain.
Courtesy of Aziz Abu Sarah
Aziz Abu Sarah is known internationally for his work in conflict resolution, peace building and using tourism as a way to educate people

The University of Wyoming recently welcomed Aziz Abu Sarah to speak at the campus. He grew up as a Palestinian in Jerusalem and is known internationally for his work in conflict resolution, peace building and using tourism as a way to educate people. Abu Sarah has been featured in a TED talk, National Geographic and the New York Times.

He recently sat down with Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan.

Caitlin Tan: Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood and maybe when you traveled across town to West Jerusalem at 18, and how this has informed your work going forward?

Aziz Abu Sarah: I grew up in Jerusalem. I thought it was a normal childhood. It took me much later to figure out it wasn't. I didn't have much to do after school usually, and I remember my first experience to find something fun to do was to go and throw rocks at cars. And being a Palestinian, I guess I was supposed to throw rocks at Israeli cars, but I didn't know that. So I threw rocks at my neighbor's cars, which did not go well, because they knew where I lived, and they were able to come and tell my dad. So that was my introduction to the conflict, is throwing rocks.

I think I was shocked that first time when I was eight years old, and those things stay with you. Eventually, my brother was arrested from home on suspicion of throwing rocks and beat up by the soldiers, Israeli soldiers, who arrested him. He ended up dying as a result of internal injuries that he sustained in prison. I grew up very angry, very bitter. And all I could think about was revenge. For eight years, that was my focus in life, until when I finished high school at 18. I ended up going to Jerusalem to study Hebrew, and my whole class was Jewish immigrants. This was my first time ever meeting Israelis not at a checkpoint, not as soldiers, not as the ‘other’. And that experience, which was literally like you said, across town just a 20 minute walk from my house, completely changed my life. I was for the first time able to hear the other narrative, the other story, and to realize that we have a lot in common, and we are not doomed to be enemies.

This really changed my perception of the whole world, realizing how a lack of communication and ignorance is what makes us enemies, and how they didn't know anything about us, we didn't know anything about them. And that makes us assume that the other must have tails and horns, and all they think about is killing us and hurting us. I also realized as a kid, I felt I had no choice except being angry and to seek revenge. And suddenly, I realized I do have a choice, regardless of what actions others do against you. You always have the ability to respond differently. And that was very freeing. I basically realized I was slave to the person who killed my brother, being angry and full of hate, and letting that go just freed me.

CT: Wow. Yeah, there's something to be said about letting go of anger. It's not easy.

So you now run a tour company that has a really unique take on tourism – that travel can be somewhat of a force for peace. And the approach you use is something called a ‘dual narrative’, which I think kind of links back to what you were just talking about. Can you explain this concept a little more?

AS: Yeah, I co-founded Mejdi Tours with my Jewish friend, Scott Coope, which is something quite rare. For Israelis, Palestinians and Jewish Americans to work together, co-own businesses together, that is very, very rare. And when we started, even people told us, ‘How could you trust the other? You know, he's Jewish.’ Or they'll tell him, ‘He's Arab? How could you trust him?’ But we've proven for the last 12 years, we've worked together, and we've become best friends.

We wanted to set a company that doesn't just take people to do sightseeing, which we obviously do, but also to really understand complexities of places we visit to hear the voices that normally you don't hear on tours, to realize that no place has a single story, no place is homogenous – there's so much more to travel.

In Jerusalem, almost all tourists have either an Israeli Jewish guide or a Palestinian guide. So you get to really only hear one perspective and culture, history, politics, everything. What we decided to do is put two tour guides together, one Israeli, one Palestinian, and have them work through the whole trip together. And what ends up happening is not a political tour, necessarily. It's not all about politics, but you get to understand the two sides politically, historically, culturally, music wise, food wise and so on. Suddenly, you really connect to the place you're going to instead of just having half of the story, and we took that from Jerusalem to 20 other destinations now, where we're doing similar stuff, looking at voices that often tourists don't hear, and trying to complicate the narrative wherever you go – trying to get you to respect a traveler enough to say there's more to the story than just the place you can take a photo of.

CT: So from what I understand you've expanded the company into the U.S. with some red, blue divide tours in D.C. I'm really curious how that has been, you know, especially at a time when the US is quite divided?

AS: I think that's exactly why we need this trip. There's so little dialogue happening between different groups in the U.S., and whether you're on the right or on the left, this divide is growing more, and we don't know how to talk about it. We felt through travel, we kind of become more open. When we’re traveling, we're willing to do stuff that usually we're not willing to do. We're willing to eat things we're not willing to eat, and we can also confront stereotypes and prejudices we have that maybe in a normal meeting with somebody from your family would be harder to do.

So we set up these tours where a Republican and a Democrat lead the tour together. We talk about all kinds of issues – race issues, health care, D.C. right to vote, gun ownership and we meet people from both sides, not just the tour guides.

You get a Republican and Democrat leaving the tours, but that's not enough. That's only two perspectives. The truth is not all people on the right are the same, and people on the left are not all the same. So we try to meet multiple people from different backgrounds, hear different stories, visit the churches, talk about faith and politics, talk about gun ownership and gun rights. Is there a place we can find common ground?

What amazed me most about this is you would imagine that these trips would have so much conflict and people arguing with each other and not getting along, and it's almost the opposite. My first tour, I had to go to the guides halfway through and say, ‘Maybe we spice it up a little bit, it feels like you guys are agreeing way too much.’ When we do talk face-to-face and put these stereotypes aside, and really look at how can we understand each other? How can I prove you wrong? It's a totally different conversation.

CT: So being here in Wyoming, it is a very rural, politically red state. And I think a lot of times what I hear from people is they feel misunderstood by people in bigger cities and lawmakers in Washington D.C. I'm wondering if you have any perspective of how people in Wyoming could apply your take on peaceful tourism in this dual narrative maybe in their own lives?

AS: You do get a lot of people traveling to Wyoming. I hear this all over the world, ‘We feel our narrative is not being communicated.’ It's not unique to Wyoming, and it's normal. I think lack of communication, lack of understanding, it's the root of most conflicts in the world. So what could happen is rethinking about how you communicate your story here in Wyoming to people who travel here? Are you showing them those narratives? I've traveled through Wyoming, and I would love to hear more about, you know, like you said, this is a state that people feel misunderstood. So as a traveler here, is there something that you can help me understand? And it means rethinking how you're operating the travel industry in the state, to be able to tell those stories, to tell the stories of the people who live here, to tell the stories of people who feel their voices are unheard, to make that part of the experience.

It's not really hard to do. Just like in Washington D.C., we go to the monuments, we will do the normal things, but while we are at the monuments, we don't just say, ‘Here's who built the Lincoln Memorial,’ we talk about the legacy. And then we talked about the different perspectives and that legacy. This is possible to do as well in Wyoming for travelers coming from outside.

CT: On a larger scale, do you have any thoughts on current world politics? Obviously, there's a lot of tension across the globe right now. I mean, the war in Ukraine is a prime example. Do you feel like there's a way to move forward in a more peaceful direction?

AS: I always have hope because without hope people perish. There’s a verse, ‘Without hope, without vision, people perish.’ It's a verse from the Bible. I think you can't give up and hope that we can get things better. Stephen Hawking in one of his last interviews, he was asked about what's the biggest threat to humanity and he said, ‘aggression.’ And so to move us more toward peace, we have to really deal with that issue. We cannot agree on global warming, we cannot agree on many of the threats that face us in the world if we don't deal with aggression, with conflict, with misunderstandings that we have. This is what brought me to travel because 1.5 billion people traveled internationally before the pandemic. If we can change the way we interact with each other when we travel, imagine the rebel effect of that 1.5 billion people probably meeting another three, four billion people on their trips. The whole world meets each other through travel, and yet, we don't realize that travel is actually an act of diplomacy. It's an act of peacemaking. We let it be just a leisure kind of thing, but if we change our perspective on it, I think many of the wars that happened today would not be possible, because politicians would not be able to use us against each other to demonize the other because we know then who's the other, we know, that's my friend, that's not my enemy. It's not an us versus them. We actually can work together because we know them personally, and that's what's lacking today. That's why, you know, Putin can mobilize people to go to war in Ukraine, because those connections have been lost, and you can sell lies about who the other is, we don't have a way to get to know who the other is.

CT: Aziz, is there anything else you'd like to share with Wyomingites specifically?

AS: You mentioned being misunderstood. One of the things I like to always remember is this quote by Ibn Battuta, an Arab traveler from Morocco. From hundreds of years ago, he said, ‘Travel makes you speechless. And then it turns you into a storyteller. Travel makes you speechless, and then it turns you into a storyteller.’ And I think one thing we have to always remember, it's when you meet people who are different than you, when you meet people who maybe don't know you, so quickly we like to box people in, we want to put them in red or blue, we like to put them into my side or their side. What I encourage people to do instead, the point of the whole work I do, is if we instead focus on the story of the person, the story for the person coming from the human experience, it changes the way we perceive the other, and I think it'll change the way people perceive us. I've seen it in my life. Whenever I try to push my story on others, they don't listen, but when we start telling stories to each other, suddenly we can understand the other much, much better and eventually build friendships.

CT: I think that's very powerful. And as a quick aside, I hear you're a big fan of country music?

AS: I am a huge fan of country music. I was in Jerusalem, and I dated an American girl for a brief period and then she broke up with me and left to the states. But, she introduced me to country music, which was so nice of her because I had something to comfort me with after the breakup. Since then I’m a huge fan and attend concerts. Brad Paisley is one of my favorites – Tim McGraw, Johnny Cash, Patsy Klein, all of it. On my drive from Denver to here, that's what I listened to the whole ride is country music.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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