A Palestinian raised in Jerusalem, his journey from a radical seeking revenge to peacemaker seeking reconciliation led to an innovative method of peacemaking. Harnessing the transformative power of travel, he cofounded MEJDI Tours in 2009—originators of the Dual Narrative™ and a leader of socially conscious travel. Aziz’s educational and conflict resolution work throughout the world 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, AlQuds, Haaretz, and has been published by National Geographic, CNN, TED, and Alarabiya. Most recently he has written CROSSING BOUNDARIES: A Traveler's Guide to World Peace.
Before you became a partner in MEJDI Tours, you were co-director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (at George Mason University). What motivated you to make this transition?
I’ve always been fascinated by travel, even before my international conflict resolution work I was focused on bringing people together. I asked ‘How do we make confliction resolution sustainable’? It’s a very hard thing to do. We needed a business model to make this work. To insert conflict resolution in daily life. To make it normal.
Tourism is the largest educational, intercultural exchange program on earth. 1.4 billion people travel internationally each year. That doesn’t include domestic travel.
In your book you write “If I don’t travel or explore within my own community, then I’m not going to do it, even if I travel 5,000 miles.” Could you elaborate on that?
You have to learn [to explore different cultures] at home. If doesn’t become part of your life it becomes harder to do abroad. [When traveling] you’re going to look for your comfort zone. Stay in the hotel, eat the same food you’re used to, without exploring culture.
Lots of people travel to different countries and all they did differently was take photos.
We need to connect to the place [where we are] and meet people. Beginning in our own community. For example, the Vietnamese culture is strong in my own neighborhood in the USA! I’ve learned more from the local Vietnamese community in the USA than I did in Vietnam.
I don’t know any community that is one hundred percent homogenous, having a single story. That’s the most important statement I wrote in the whole book.
You wrote “The most crucial travel we can experience is usually just outside our front door.
The most transformational trip I ever made was walking across the street [in Jerusalem].
in the United States, how divided we have become, within class, within
cultures. But there are no borders. No checkpoints.
In your book you reference an answer that Stephen Hawking gave when asked what trait of human nature would he most like to change. He said it was aggression.
We cannot deal with any of the main issues (conservation, global warming, etc.), we can’t address any of these issues until we can work on aggression. Until we do, we won’t cooperate. These issues are stagnated because we can’t work with each other.
We need more conflict resolution training in schools. How do teachers handle [this issue] in the classroom How do diplomats handle conflict? We [continually hear] talk about winners and losers. So many diplomats I’ve met don’t even deal with conflict resolution.
We seem to have the wrong priorities.
You go on to note that “The issues facing human society do not recognize the artificial boundaries and borders we’ve created. We are all connected.”
Covid-19 is a great example of a global health issue that has no borders. The less we [are able to] work together the more we will all suffer.
Global warming is another big example. A whole country could disappear due to global warming. And look at Syria, Lebanon Jordan, Turkey, all [these countries are] dealing with refugees.
The idea that we can seal ourselves from the world, it just doesn’t work. Our decisions (in the USA) effect the whole world. Living inside a nationalistic bubble is an illusion.
Towards the end of CROSSING BOUNDARIES you write: “If we approach other religious communities with the same spirit of humility, respect, and learning that we extend to others, we'll discover both a world of diversity and surprising similarities But we have to be willing to suspend judgment and approach the existence of others with different beliefs as a learning opportunity, not as a threat.
Through travel, I realize how much I don’t know. The more I travel the more I learn what I don’t know. There’s so much I need to educate myself about.
I’m continually learning new things about conflict resolution by traveling, experiencing different cultures. To explore and ask: “How do you [in your culture] address these issues?” We need to connect with local knowledge. I ask a lot of questions about how people deal with solving conflicts. I am always learning something new.
It’s a different way of travel.
In your book you write about countries each having their own historical narrative, which while based on historical events, "are remembered or forgotten based on how they relate to current events and concepts of self... As a result, when learning about a country's history for the first time, it is important to consider how the present intersects with the past. How does an archeological site, museum display or historical event fit into the group's narrative of who they are? Who curates and promotes this narrative (the government, a majority ethnic group)? What historical events or groups are silenced in (or left out of) the narrative or museum display, because their inclusion might challenge the moral of the story?"
Once I was teaching a class on Israeli-Palestinian history. On one side of the room, I wrote down the Israeli timeline, on the other side, the Palestinian timeline. There wasn’t much difference in how both sides saw recent events; but there were differences in what was missing in each other’s story. The focus was different between the two groups. You have to ask yourself ‘what’s missing in this history?’
Every country has a national narrative. But it leaves out certain stories that don’t jive with the national narrative. So, it’s important to learn what’s missing.
There’s often a dominant narrative story, but some stories that are left out. We need to ask ‘What’s missing?’ [What’s missing is] not necessarily anti-government, but someone decided it wasn’t important.
Are there other voices [from different communities] we’re not hearing because they don’t fit in a box [of the national narrative]? If you include these stories it creates a new dynamic. When we travel we should try to find the missing voices.
Countries' stories don’t fit nicely into one box. No country has such a perfect narrative.
In the last pages of CROSSING BOUNDARIES, you note that we need to “Stop. Breathe. Reflect. And act in ways that will make the world a more kind and humane place." I really appreciate that piece of wisdom!
Sometimes it’s really important to take a step back, to really clear our mind, to think about where we are, to meditate (think). Take a moment of reflection. To ask: Where am I? What is happening here?
When we’re frustrated or anxious It’s really hard to be kind. To be purposeful.
It’s very easy to get into the spiral of: They yelled… so I’m going to yell.. They shoved… so I’m going to shove back. But my mission is to be kind.
I see this even in religious places [in Jerusalem], with people becoming frustrated and anxious. For example, at the Church of Holy the Sepulchre, one tour group got so mad because they thought another group was trying to shove their way past them.
I tried to make my book relevant, even for people who never want to leave their city. These concepts of travel can be applied in everyday life.