From Israel to Iran, Mideast Unites in Praise of Compassionate Chef Bourdain

American chef’s TV specials on Iran, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are seen as some of his best work, hailed for avoiding stereotypes and telling complex stories with rare humanity

Photographs and flowers left in memory of Anthony Bourdain at the Brasserie Les Halles, where Bourdain used to work, June 8, 2018.
Drew Angerer/AFP

The reach of Anthony Bourdain was vast. But in the Middle East – which often resents the formulaic way locals’ lives are presented to the world – this storytelling chef was hailed as something of a truth-telling savior, a man who depicted the people and their food with rare heart and complexity. Over the weekend, they united in mourning his death on Friday at age 61.

Bourdain, the host of CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” filmed episodes in Lebanon, Iran, Libya, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Not only were these considered among his finest work, they also had a profound impact on the chef himself.

It was a 2006 episode in Lebanon for his previous show “No Reservations” (on the Travel Channel) that changed his very approach to the job. Its filming coincided with the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, just a day after he and his crew had landed in Beirut.

Kim Ghattas, a Lebanese journalist who reports for the BBC, penned a tribute to Bourdain’s coverage of Lebanon in The Atlantic, writing, “Every time I read Bourdain on Lebanon, I marvel at his ability to grasp the subtleties of a place where he’d never lived.

“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. He cared about people outside the lens of violence, beyond the headlines and the reductionist clichés,” she continued.

Bourdain was candid about how landing in peacetime Beirut one day and finding a city at war the next transformed his mission: “One day I was making television about eating and drinking. The next I was watching the airport I’d landed in a few days earlier being blown up across the water from my hotel window.

“I came away from the experience deeply embittered, confused – and determined to make television differently than I had before,” he wrote in Bourdain’s Field Notes in June 2015, after he returned for an episode of “Parts Unknown.”

“I didn’t know how I was going to do it or whether my network at the time was going to allow me,” he added, “but the days of happy horseshit – the uplifting sum-up at the end of every show, the reflex inclusion of a food scene in every act – that ended right there.”

The harsh realities that informed the countries he was visiting could no longer be ignored, he wrote. “I just saw that there were realities beyond what was on my plate, and those realities almost inevitably informed what was – or was not – for dinner.”

An American-Lebanese fan, Sarah Rafeh, wrote in response to his suspected suicide on Friday, “My heart ACHES. Anthony Bourdain was one of the first food critics to visit Lebanon and put such an emphasis on its beauty. He did my country a solid and I’ve been a raving fan of his ever since.”

Abed A. Ayoub, legal and policy director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, lauded Bourdain for breaking through stereotypes about the Middle East. He tweeted that the chef “was willing to offer a different perspective that many in the business have either avoided, or demonized. His work in Palestine and love for Lebanon are just two examples of his character.”

The Institute for Middle East Understanding, a nonprofit that works with journalists to provide information on Palestinian issues, created a meme that was widely shared on social media by Palestinians, citing a quote Bourdain made after filming a 2013 episode of “Parts Unknown” on Israel-Palestine. It states: “The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity.”

This episode initially took viewers on a tour through Jerusalem’s Old City, where he was accompanied by London-based Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi. On Instagram on Friday, Ottolenghi called Bourdain “a great explorer and brilliant storyteller. A huge loss of a person who shaped and changed the way we write about food. Very sad.”

Bourdain’s Holy Land episode also included visits to a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, the Palestinian city of Bethlehem and Kibbutz Bror Hayil in the Negev. But it was his depictions of everyday life in Gaza that drew the strongest reactions, particularly from Palestinians.

Laila el-Haddad, whose twitter handle is “Gazamom,” posted a photo of herself, her then-baby girl and Bourdain during filming in Gaza. She remembered him as a “master baby whisperer” for rocking her daughter to sleep during shooting.

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian human rights lawyer and former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, was quoted by CNN reflecting on Bourdain: “He saw Palestinians as human beings – it’s sad we have to say this in this day and age, that someone saw us as human beings, but he did and that for me was very powerful.

“He not only loved food but all of the things that surround food – love, humanity, culture, tradition,” she added. “It was powerful because he was bringing his love and passion for food and coupled it with the story about Palestinian deprivation.”

Reporting on his death, the Israeli media focused on Bourdain’s Jewish heritage and his visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall in 2013. The son of a Jewish mother and a Christian father, Bourdain said he was raised without either religion and considered himself an atheist. Even so, he put on a kippa and tefillin (phylacteries) during his visit to the Kotel.

“I’ve never been in a synagogue,” he told viewers during the episode. “I don’t believe in a higher power. But that doesn’t make me any less Jewish, I don’t think.”

He was also aware that the episode and the comments he made would come under incredible scrutiny. Introducing the show, he called the Holy Land “easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world. And there’s no hope – none – of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off.”

Bourdain was also mourned by some Iranians, who credited him with showing a human face to their country, maligned in much of the West as a pariah state for its hostile politics and religious conservatism.

“The thing that I will remember Anthony Bourdain the most is showcasing Iran, not as the ‘Axis of Evil’ but as a loving community,” tweeted one fan, Cyrus Fayazi. “He did not sugarcoat it, there are still bad parts there, but he showed us that Iranian people are welcoming and loving people. It means a lot to me.”