New York chef Anthony Bourdain is known for his adventurous television pursuits of flavour and his no-holds-barred opinions. If his travels and exotic meals have taught him one thing, it’s that you get a better understanding of people when you sit down and eat with them.
This week John Little, from Blogs Of War, which offers excellent insight into international politics, security and conflict, published a fascinating interview with the chef, in which Bourdain says “I used to think that basically, the whole world, that all humanity were basically bastards. I’ve since found that most people seem to be pretty nice – basically good people doing the best they can.”
He’s travelled to a number of political hotspots and conflict zones, learning that food plays a massive part in how a conflict plays out too. For example, in pre-revolution Egypt, authorities prevented him from going out shoot scenes of people eating street food because the army controlled flour and bread supplies and many of the population were missing out.
Iran was “mind-blowing”, he said, and its people the nicest he’s encountered. Bourdain told Blogs of War:
Didn’t see that coming. It’s very confusing. Total strangers thrilled to encounter Americans, just underneath the inevitable “Death To America” mural. The gulf between perception and reality, between government policy and what you see on the street and encounter in people’s homes, in restaurants – everywhere – it’s just incredible.
Its easier to think of Iran as a monolith – in an uncomplicated, ideological way. More comfortable, too. Life ain’t that simple. It IS complicated. And filled with nuance worth exploring.
A constant on my travels is nice, incredibly hospitable people, often very reasonable people. Unfortunately, another constant is that nice, reasonable people are being ground under the wheel.
Last year, Bourdain’s TV series, Parts Unknown, ventured to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. He introduced the episode by saying:
“There’s no hope, none, of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off… By the end of this hour I will be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent, and worse.”
One surprise, Bourdain says, was how delighted the Palestinians were to be portrayed going about their everyday lives because “they are so used to camera crews coming in to just get the usual shots of rock throwing kids and crying women”.
Gaza, the camps and the West Bank left him “reeling with the ugliness of it all”.
But the blowback was inevitable, as he explained:
For some, unfortunately, depicting Palestinians as anything other than terrorists is proof positive that you have an agenda, that you have bought in to some sinister propaganda guidelines issuing from some evil central command in charge of interfacing with Western com/symp dupes. A photo of a Palestinian washing their car or playing with their child is, therefore automatically “propaganda.”
The division and vehemence of the debate became most apparent to Bourdain after this tweet, just a week ago.
— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) July 16, 2014
He explains the reaction to Little.
I am the father of a 7-year-old girl who I, of course, adore. I retweeted the picture with the comment that as a father, as someone who had walked that beach, I felt particularly horrified.
That’s all I said.
The reaction? This was not, it would seem a “Oh, yeah? well, what about..?” situation. The photo did not require, one would think, any equivalency, a countervailing argument.
It’s a picture of dead children. Period. The appropriate reaction, one would think would be “How terrible!” But, as it turned out, of course, even this image would be hijacked by extremists of both sides, the conversation devolving into ugly racist shit and accusations.
This is all too often the world we live in now, where even a simple, heartfelt, human reaction- the kind of emotion any father would have – is tantamount to choosing sides.
And then he sums up an intractable conflict in a very human way.
The absolute failure of smart, presumably good-hearted people on both sides to find something/anything better than what we’ve arrived at. And the willingness of people to not see what is plainly apparent, right there, enormous and frankly, hideous. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it’s nearly impossible to even describe reality much less deal with it. It’s utterly heartbreaking.
Read the full Bourdain interview here.