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Breaking Bread: Anthony Bourdain’s Quest for Cultural Understanding

Elie Chalala

by Naomi Pham
On the left, Anthony Bourdain in Gaza with children. On the right, Bourdain and his crew filming for “No Reservations” in Beirut. Photo credit: CNN.

Anthony Bourdain brought food from a television screen to the tables of many across the world, giving people who might not have known about the Middle East an honest glimpse, platter by platter, into the lives of those who lived there. On June 8, 2018, the esteemed American chef passed away. Bourdain, whose death by suicide has moved several people to speak about the impact of his work on their lives, showcased the culture and cuisine of countries from all over the world in his travelogue programs “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown,” especially in his features of Lebanon, Iran, the West Bank and Gaza.

Although born in New York, Bourdain’s lasting work took place not in American kitchens, but far from them, appearing on televisions across the globe and overseas in his well-known shows “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.” “His early public persona – the macho, unrepentant, drug-loving chef – evolved into that of a clear-eyed crusader for global food justice,” according to a New York Times article by Kim Severson, Matthew Haag and Julia Moskin. In “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain focused his camera lens more on the people living around him than on himself, exploring politics and history through meals with the locals, as cited by the New York Times.

Bourdain clearly demonstrated how a culture’s food not only offers nourishment, but also says a lot about history and identity. In the words of Kim Ghattas in her article for The Atlantic, “Bourdain developed a new approach that used conversations about food to tell the story and politics of the countries he visited in ways that hard news couldn’t.” She goes on, “Perhaps Beirut had taught him what every Lebanese knows: that conversations around and about food allow people to let their guard down. Discussions about the secret source of your spices, or how to pound your meat, erase all differences.” As Rania Abouzeid writes in her article in the Washington Post, “Food is nourishment, it is comfort, it is identity, tradition, history and memory. In preparing a dish for Bourdain, what many of the people on his show also seemed to be saying was, ‘This is who I am, and I want to share it with you.”’

Bourdain’s relationship to food and the people who invited him to their tables gave him an opportunity to learn about them, as human beings, rather than just participants in the conflicts that surrounded their countries. Nonetheless, their stories tended to paint vivid pictures of those conflicts. Bourdain stated, “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve had as dining companions over the years everybody from Hezbollah supporters, communist functionaries, anti-Putin activists, cowboys, stoners, Christian militia leaders, feminists, Palestinians and Israeli settlers to Ted Nugent. You like food and are reasonably nice at the table? You show me hospitality when I travel? I will sit down with you and break bread.”

His work transcended the television screen, touching the hearts of audiences as well as those of the people who spoke with him one-on-one in his tours. “I suspect people in other countries Bourdain visited felt he understood them too, spoke for them, and saw them for who they were: ordinary people with real names, lives filled with hope, love stories, heartbreak, and laughter,” writes Ghattas, who continues, “He cared about people outside the lens of violence, beyond the headlines and the reductionist clichés. He broke down the barrier of the other, especially in countries with long-standing political enmity with the United States, like Iran and Cuba.”

During his filming for the Lebanon episode of “No Reservations,” Bourdain captured the moment violence erupted between Israel and Hezbollah. “Yet the show never became about the experience of a terrorized American stranded in a scary place,” writes Ghattas, “Bourdain never made it about Bourdain – Lebanon was the story. And even during the dramatic scene of his departure, on a ship surrounded by Marines and hundreds of other evacuees – Americans and dual citizens – his focus remained on Lebanon and the distraught faces of its people, leaving behind country and family, uncertain of whether they’d ever return.”

Bourdain and his crew relocated to a hotel north of the capital away from the affected areas before being rescued by Marines along with other evacuees, many Lebanese-American. He reflected in an article for the web-based journal Salon, “Unlike the Lebanese Americans who make it out, we don’t leave homes and loved ones behind, we will get out and return to business as usual. To unbroken homes, intact families, friends and jobs.” He later wrote in his field notes for the episode how Beirut taught him about “realities beyond what was on my plate, and those realities almost inevitably informed what was – or was not – for dinner. To ignore them had come to seem monstrous.” He wrote how he, as well as his entire crew, fell in love with Beirut, and felt disappointed to be unable to continue filming after such a brief glimpse into what it had to offer. In 2010, he returned to Beirut for another episode of “No Reservations” entitled “Back to Beirut.”

Bourdain stressed the complexity of our world, one not simply “black and white” in character. According to a CNN article by Angela Dewan, Tamara Qiblawi and Gianluca Mezzofiore, his show went beyond what the Western media reports and government rhetoric showcased on televisions, showing the lives of locals with humane consideration. In Bourdain’s published field notes of his trip to Iran, he wrote: “What we saw, what we came back with, is a deeply confusing story. Because the Iran you see from the inside, once you walk the streets of Tehran, once you meet Iranians, is a very different place than the Iran you know from the news. Nowhere else I’ve been has the disconnect been so extreme between what one sees and feels from the people and what one sees and hears from the government.”

Conscious of how his Palestine episode could make him out to be a “terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an Orientalist, socialist, a fascist, CIA agent, and worse,” as he states in the opening of the episode on Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza in 2015, Bourdain nevertheless spoke on issues of dehumanization that Palestinians have faced and treated them like “people, rather than mere numbers in a conflict,” according to CNN. His lasting work has impacted the lives of many, and, according to Edward Lee, as cited in an article by the Washington Post, “in an age of celebrities, he really fought for the underdog… He helped chefs. He helped people.”

Anthony Bourdain, 61, passed away in France while working on his show “Parts Unknown,” which has won a slew of awards including the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Series. Bourdain is survived by his 11-year-old daughter Ariane as well as his ex-wife Ottavia Busia.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 22, No. 75, 2018.

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