In the summer of 2006, I was in southern Lebanon, reporting on a devastating month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah. Anthony Bourdain was also in the country, farther north in the capital, Beirut, an experience, he would later write, “changed everything” for him.
I did not know of Bourdain at the time and did not watch his Beirut 2006 episode until well after it had aired on his Travel Channel show, “No Reservations.” Yes, Bourdain dipped into some of the many Beirut cliches, the “babes in bikinis near women in hijabs,” to name one, but he also posed thoughtful questions about conflict, history and the human condition. The episode left me intrigued — who was this TV chef with a travel show, who had humanely presented my much-maligned, misunderstood Arab city, acknowledging its complexity in a manner more effective than many journalists ever had?
Bourdain said he came away from his 2006 experience in the Lebanese capital “determined to make television differently than I’d done before.” After Beirut, he wrote, “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 world was bigger than that. The stories more confusing, more complex, less satisfying in their resolutions.”
Perhaps none more so than his own story and how it ended.
On Friday, Bourdain took his own life. In the hours and days to come, we will learn more about how a man at the pinnacle of his career — a coolly charismatic guy who seemed to have it all, whom everybody I know wanted to be like, or at least meet — died suddenly and maybe why.
It is equally important to remember how Bourdain lived, at least on our screens, first on the Food Network, then the Travel Channel and finally CNN. He seemed willing to go anywhere, to eat anything, to meet anyone. He dived into the new and the different. To Bourdain, the world was not a place to be feared, ridiculed or approached with trepidation or disgust. He did not look down on the foreign places he visited. Did not view them as quaint or backward or insert-usual-derogatory adjective. His was not an Orientalist gaze. He did not partake in the kind of cringeworthy white-person-documenting-the-natives “safari” journalism that is more often used to portray places like Beirut. Instead, Bourdain seemed to have a curiosity, openness and respectful desire to learn and understand that should shame many a journalist — and a president or two.
People are complex. So are the places they come from. Bourdain saw humanity (and food) everywhere and connected with it. In Beirut in 2006, he ate hummus, kibbe (a finely minced meat and borghol divinity), crispy-skinned roast chicken; he drank arak, the milky anise-infused alcoholic drink. His dining was less about the menu and more about Bourdain’s approach to it. He used food, that most diverse of human unifiers, to teach us about each other and to question power and scrutinize injustice. We all eat, and we all prepare meals differently, each dish a story that can explain something about a community, what it provides (or does not), and how certain ingredients come to end all mixed up on a nation’s plate. 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.”
Diversity, through Bourdain’s eyes, was beautiful and educational. He reminded us there were still many parts unknown, even when he reported within the United States. It is an approach sorely needed at a time when social media make it easy to filter out The Other and to spew vitriol at those who are different in ways big or small. Bourdain could be comedic but not condescending. Sarcastic, but generally not rude — although he had pointed political views, especially on #MeToo, the Trump presidency and vegetarians. He did not shy away from admitting his own biases and what he did not know.
In the hours after Bourdain’s death, my Twitter feed was full of Middle Easterners, Asians and South Americans thanking Bourdain for visiting their countries and depicting their cultures through a lens that was as humble and respectful as it was inquisitive. Bourdain returned to my home city of Beirut in 2015, this time for CNN’s “Parts Unknown.” The Lebanese capital, he said, was a place he fell in love with, so much so he considered naming his daughter Beirut. It was a city “where nothing made any damn sense at all — in the best possible way,” he wrote. “You should go there. It defies logic. It defies expectations. It is amazing.”
So, too, were you, Anthony Bourdain, and your way of looking at the world. A chef who embraced difference in an increasingly intolerant world. A man who viewed Beirut — and all the many other places too often oversimplified, marginalized and demonized — on their own terms.