If you want to go to Paris, don’t call Jerry Sorkin. But if you want to see Algiers’ famed art-deco structures, spend the night in a Bedouin encampment deep in the Sahara desert, or walk ancient roads rutted by Roman chariots, he’s your man. They’re places that regularly turn up on the evening news—spots other travel companies won’t touch.
That may be an unusual business model. But then, Sorkin is an unusual guy. For one thing, he grew up in a traditional Jewish household in Missouri where the furthest afield anyone in his family traveled was to the other side of St. Louis. For another, he’s an Arabic-speaking graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was often the first Jew many of his language professors had met. Among his friends are a former member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, a student activist from Tunisia, and an engineer from Iraq.
All this, Sorkin says, has enabled him to build an award-winning travel business that specializes in some of the most volatile regions of the Arab world. “People see that I’ve taken the time to learn their language and their culture,” he says. “I’m the anomaly in their land, and that’s helped me gain respect.”
Sorkin opened his first import shop in Devon in the mid-1980s. It was tucked into an old stone building on the corner of Sugartown Road and Lancaster Avenue, next to Braxton’s Animal Works. He expanded in 1996, moving to an airy two-story showroom in Wayne.
To enter J.M. Sorkin in those days was like stepping into a particularly worldly curiosity shop. The store was stocked with hand-knotted village rugs from Tunisia, lamps made from goatskin and decorated with henna for a soft, orange glow, and coffee tables fashioned from Afghan ox-carts. Everywhere, on every surface, there was something to see or touch.
While the retail business provided its share of headaches, one thing Sorkin always loved were his customers—people who enjoyed traveling and learning about other cultures, and were curious about the world. They’d ask him about his trips, often joking about coming along. It inspired him to open the first of his two travel businesses, TunisUSA, in the mid-’90s. “[My clients] were adventurous travelers,” says Sorkin. “If you asked them where they’d been last, it was places like Borneo, Galapágos, Laos.”
When he decided to focus on travel full time in 2006, those same people were signing up for tours to Turkey and Tunisia—the places he knew best—and later, Iran, Algeria, Malta and Libya. One is Sue Warsaw, a travel agent from Elkins Park. She just returned from a trip to Algeria and Tunisia, where the guides were exceptional. “They’re not just people from off the street who take you around and tell you about buildings,” she says. “They’re authors, artists, writers and archaeologists. They’re well-versed in every subject.”
In December 2010, Tunisia exploded when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor from the picturesque town of Sidi Bou Said, set himself on fire after he’d been serially harassed by police. Unrest spread rapidly from Tunisia across North Africa to the Middle East. It became known as the Arab Spring.
Back in Wayne, TunisUSA ground to a halt. What had been Sorkin’s strength—an intimate knowledge of that Arab region—became a liability overnight. He took to the streets to convince travelers it was still safe. Armed with his cell phone, he videotaped interviews with Tunisians, posting them on his website.
The clips grabbed the attention of international news organizations and journalists looking for a local contact who could help them cover the evolving political situation. He became a “fixer”—someone who paved the way for interviews, introducing journalists to key government figures, along with students and ordinary citizens.
As the situation in Tunisia stabilized, Sorkin slowly rebuilt his travel business—only to see it crash again when the U.S. Embassy in Tunis was attacked in 2012 after the release of a film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad. Two people were killed, scores injured.
For his business to survive, Sorkin would have to expand to other, less volatile (though no less interesting) parts of the world. “I thought our real asset-—and what helped us grow—was our specialization in the Middle East,” he says. “But, as this was quickly becoming a liability, I realized that the real assets were the people who loved the types of programs we put together.”
Sorkin has since launched the umbrella company, Iconic Journeys Worldwide, adding tours to Asia, Europe, Africa and recently, Cuba. His mission is the same: to bring people from different cultures together to talk, share a meal, and gain insights into life in countries that may or may not (as with Iran and Cuba) have formal relationships with our government.
If this sounds a bit like citizen diplomacy, it’s because it is. Sorkin’s interest in the subject began early. In college, he often brought together Palestinians and Israelis. Once, following the Oslo Accords, he brought a delegation to meet Yasser Arafat, then the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In fact, Sorkin only got into the rug business because he couldn’t get into the U.S. diplomatic corps. “Other than that,” he says, “there was no job, no profession that I could’ve said that I had in mind. Things don’t always come out as you wish.”
Sorkin had begun learning about rugs as a teenager, when he took an after-school job in the warehouse of an Iranian merchant, and he began traveling shortly after high school, and he started buying rugs and bringing them back to sell.
In 2006, a confluence of events convinced him to fully commit to the travel business. Drained both personally and financially, he’d just separated from his wife and was exhausted after a protracted fight with the U.S. State Department over a shipping container that had been caught up in an international dispute.
The problem stemmed from a Chinese shipper Sorkin used to transport goods from Asia to the U.S.—the same one used by Walmart, Kmart and Sam’s Club. The company was among four in China that were slapped with retroactive sanctions for allegedly sending materials to Iran that could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons. Suddenly, his container was going nowhere—and Sorkin had loans and lines of credit that needed to be paid off with all the stuff in it. It unleashed a domino effect on his business.
And while there was nothing in the container but furniture, rugs and accessories, it was never released. “At that point, I was paying $11,000 a month for rent alone,” says Sorkin. “I thought, ‘I don’t need all these employees and all this inventory. I also felt that, with the Internet growing, I’d never know the potential of the tourism business unless I really thrust myself into it.”
Sorkin now bases his operation in La Marsa, Tunisia, a lovely seaside town that was once home to the Turkish bey (sultan or king). And while he still feels the occasional pang of envy for the diplomats he meets, Warsaw, for one, thinks he’s in the perfect profession. “He loves people. He doesn’t care who you are or what you do; he’s genuinely interested in you as a person,” she says. “I wish we could clone him and put him in different places throughout the world. It would be a better place.”