I noted elsewhere recently that my writing of this post would be made even easier by virtue of the acceptance speech Anthony Bourdain made upon having received a “Voices of Courage and Conscience” award from the Muslim Public Affairs Council for his work on the episode of Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown where he and his crew film, talk and eat in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.
Maysoon Zayid wrote an excellent post about the episode which may operate as a primer for anyone who hasn’t viewed it.
Though I’ve yet to read any of Bourdain’s books I’ve been following him on television since A Cook’s Tour and have never failed to enjoy his work. But up until the end of season two of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations I thought of Bourdain as just another travelling gourmand who happened to have a personality like well-worn alcohol-soaked sandpaper. This fairly inconsequential assessment would change dramatically with the airing of the Beirut special.
Bourdain and crew went to Beirut to film the usual fare for No Reservations when Israel launched attacks on Lebanon in response to rockets fired at Israel by Hezbollah. Beirut locked down and the No Reservations team found themselves with nothing to film. But nothing to film became a much more important something to film. Instead of packing up and getting out as quickly as possible, they filmed their flight from Beirut and along the way captured footage of the duress people live under when war is a very real part of life and always too near at hand: a feature of existence utterly unfamiliar to the lives of the typical No Reservations viewer. The seizure of that opportunity to tell a different kind of story, to reveal something so common to some people yet so alien to others, raised my opinion of Bourdain and his production company to a new degree of admiration and respect.
Given the Beirut episode of No Reservations, the Parts Unknown episode in Palestine came as no surprise to me insofar as its content was concerned. Even so, the episode is well deserving of the recognition it has garnered, and continues to be one of the best episodes of television of any sort I’ve ever seen.
The key here, though, remains Bourdain himself. I’ve long thought it must require a considerable ego to be a public personality of any sort, and Bourdain has made remarks concerning notions that his television career may constitute a monument to his. Yes, an ego is required to do what he does. Yes, Bourdain can be abrasive in his expression of some opinions. But to make an assessment of Bourdain purely a matter of ego is to miss the essential and sincere humility he displays when in the presence of those who don’t merely lack his good fortune, but lack the good fortune to live lives free of war, poverty, contempt and disregard. (The acceptance speech video above serves as an example.) And though Bourdain’s journalism may seem soft compared to more conventional—or more adversarial—content, it’s precisely this soft journalism, this elevation and expansion of what might otherwise be the typical, possibly tawdry, two-minute human interest story tacked onto the end of the nightly news, that can be some of the most important and revealing journalism about the human condition.
I have no award to give Anthony Bourdain. He’s already got my respect. I think that will be good enough.
Addendum, 16 July 2014: Gaza has been under attack by Israel for several days and the latest news is four children were killed by an Israeli attack in what has every appearance of being an entirely unprovoked murder. We’ve also seen celebrities tweet support for Palestine only to delete those tweets moments later. It’s with this in mind that I present, once again, Anthony Bourdain:
Addendum, 21 July 2014: Anthony Bourdain, interviewed by John Little at Blogs of War.