MEJDI Tours sees tourism as an opportunity to transform lives through dual narratives and by strengthening local communities.
Aziz Abu Sarah is a peace-builder, social entrepreneur, cultural educator, and author of Crossing Boundaries: A Traveler’s Guide To World Peace.
But Aziz wasn’t always a peacemaker.
“Growing up in Jerusalem as a Palestinian, I was no stranger to injustice,” Aziz explains. “The event that shaped me the most, however, happened when I was nine. Just after dawn, Israeli soldiers stormed into our home. I remember the shouts, the terror, the interrogations. And then they took my 18-year-old brother, Tayseer, away. He was arrested for allegedly throwing stones at soldiers.
“I have memories of waking up early in the morning, stumbling onto a bus provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and waiting for hours before they released the prisoners into an open, fenced-off area. Families rushed toward the fencing while their imprisoned loved ones desperately searched for them from the other side of the fence.
“When we finally noticed Tayseer behind the fence, our voices were drowned out by other families squeezed beside us, screaming over one another. The Israeli prison allowed us just 10 minutes for a visit. It was frantic and noisy, a frenzied competition for space—elbows flying, everyone hoping to have a rare moment with their loved one.
“I was angry and frustrated. It was also summer, sweltering, and no one gave us water. One of the soldiers looked at me, and I looked into his eyes and thought he was evil. One thing was clear in my mind: he was, quite simply, the oppressor. This was the portrait I had of the Israelis: the soldiers who tore my family apart and managed the prison that kept my brother inside a cage.
“Soon after, my brother was released from prison. But by then, his organs were failing from the beatings he had sustained during Israeli interrogation sessions. We rushed him to the hospital, but he died from his injuries.”
Aziz’s journey from a radical seeking revenge to peacemaker seeking reconciliation
“I grew up very angry,” Aziz says. “I didn’t have any Jewish or Israeli friends growing up until I was 18 years old.
“In Jerusalem, if you don’t speak Hebrew, you’re not going to go to college. You’re not going to work. Your chances of success in life are minimal. In my high school, it was mandatory to learn Hebrew. But I went through three years of high school refusing to learn even a word of Hebrew.
“I escaped from that class. I told my teachers that I was not willing to come to class because Hebrew was the language of the enemy – the people who killed my brother. I was seven or eight years old the first time I was shot at. I had a lot of trauma to deal with. I still have to deal with it.
“And so when I was 18, I realized that if I don’t learn Hebrew, I will not have any chance of success in my life. So I went to study Hebrew. I studied Hebrew in a class where I was the only Palestinian, and almost all of the people in the class were Jewish immigrants to Israel.
“I remember thinking I’m here to learn the language. I’m not here to make friends. I’m not going to talk to anyone. Apparently, that doesn’t work if you want to learn a language. They force you to sit together, ask questions. ‘Hey, how are you? Where are you from? What kind of music you like?’
“And that’s how we became friends. It wasn’t over political things. It was over simple things like what coffee you drink and what music you like. I love Western country music, which most Palestinians do not agree with me. In that class, I found a couple of people who love country music.
“So we would sit down and talk about Johnny Cash. It started with that and eventually got to deeper conversations and political issues. But we had this space of ‘Wait a second. We have other identities that we can connect.’ And it’s not only ‘You’re Arab or a Jew, and therefore I have to hate you because of that.’
“And in that classroom, I made my first Jewish friends. From that point on, I understood that what divides us is a wall of ignorance, fear, and hatred. I wanted to put cracks in that wall. That became my mission in life.”
A Palestinian and a Jew walk into a conflict zone
“I started to learn about others. I crossed boundaries to learn. I became committed to peace-building. Eventually, I discovered that travel can be a tool for positive change, but only the right kind of travel–travel that is done respectfully and reflectively. Travel can be used to cross cultural divides.
“I started to work with the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. I partnered with this guy, Scott Cooper, who also has gone through his own transformation. And we found ourselves working together in Afghanistan, in Syria, in countries like this, doing conflict resolution.
“And as we worked together, we realized we just so united in our thinking. We have so much in common, and we became best friends. We are like brothers. We fight like brothers. We argue like brothers. And when we work together every day, we talk every day for at least an hour or two.
“Our shared work in peace and conflict resolution inspired us to try building travel experiences. We hoped these experiences would allow others to travel the way Scott and I both had: going outside our comfort zones and listening to those who didn’t always get to tell their story.”
MEJDI Tours is Born
Harnessing the transformative power of travel, Aziz and Scott co-founded MEJDI Tours in 2009—a social enterprise that partners with local organizations to develop sustainable community tourism.
“MEJDI means honor and respect,” Aziz says. “We start with that for the local communities, those we work with, and all our travelers.”
MEJDI originated the Dual Narrative™ method that brings both sides of a conflict together as travel guides presenting their respective narrative. This approach was first introduced in the Holy Land and reaped remarkable results there and throughout the world.
MEJDI Tours goes against the grain by rejecting the model of traditional consumer tourism—a highly commercialized experience that supports big business and often damages local communities. Also, as peace-builders, we are tackling the challenge of a divided and polarized world.
The first of its kind, MEJDI’s socially responsible business model is unmatched in the industry. “We honor communities through fair wages, supporting local and small businesses,” Aziz explains. “We enable community members to share their heritage, culture, and personal stories through our unique Dual Narrative™ approach.
“We honor clients by providing customized itineraries based on their values and grounded in positive engagement. We provide dedicated customer service, unrivaled exclusive access, and immersion in local cultures and narratives.”
As a certified B Corporation, MEJDI Tours sees tourism as an opportunity to transform lives by strengthening local communities investing over 11 million dollars, and enlightening travelers worldwide.
About Aziz Abu Sarah
Aziz’s global educational and conflict resolution work has earned him the titles of National Geographic Explorer and Ted Fellow. He has written opinion pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Al-Quds, Haaretz, and has been published by National Geographic, CNN, TED, and Al Arabiya.
Despite being born with no passport or citizenship in Jerusalem, Aziz has traveled to more than 60 countries—including conflict zones and negotiating between enemy groups as part of his work. In 2018, he courageously broke boundaries when he announced his candidacy for Mayor of Jerusalem.
His book, Crossing Boundaries: A Traveler’s Guide To World Peace, was released in July 2020.