After his death was announced on Friday, many commentators have noted Bourdain’s ability to tell broader stories about a country’s history and culture through the lens of its food. More often than not, people of the countries that were the subject of his films would remark on the insight he conveyed to the rest of the world.
Bourdain made a particular impact in the Middle East — he made memorable films in Iran, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories. People in the Middle East noted on Friday how he was able to tell stories that went beyond the superficial picture painted by the daily news cycle.
Over the course of his TV career — for CNN’s “Parts Unknown” and earlier for the Travel Channel — Bourdain returned to the Middle East many times. But it was the Lebanese capital of Beirut that appeared to make a particular mark, writing once that he considered naming his newborn daughter after the city.
Bourdain fell in love with Beirut after returning from shooting an episode of one his previous shows, “No Reservations,” in 2006. He and his crew had been in the city for 24 hours when they became trapped in the beginnings of the Lebanese-Israeli conflict. They were rescued and taken to Cyprus, before flying home.
“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. I didn’t know how I was going to do it or whether my network at the time was going to allow me, 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.”
He added: “Our Beirut experience did not give me delusions of being a journalist. 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. To ignore them had come to seem monstrous.”
“And yet I’d already fallen in love with Beirut. We all had — everyone on my crew. As soon as we’d landed, headed into town, there was a reaction I can only describe as pheromonic: The place just smelled good. Like a place we were going to love.”
Ramsay Short, who worked as a fixer for Bourdain and appeared in the three of his Beirut shows, described Bourdain as cool-headed when news broke that Israel had bombed the Beirut airport runway. It wasn’t the start of the war but it marked the first major escalation that turned it from a skirmish to a full-on confrontation.
“He amazingly wasn’t too freaked out. He could handle the situation. The rest of the program was about waiting for the US marines to get him out of there,” Short told CNN.
Short also talked about the affection Bourdain felt for the Lebanese, and how that was reciprocated.
“He was embraced by the Lebanese and they embraced him back, and that was something that really got to him at that time. When he saw what happened during the Israeli bombardment, he was flabbergasted and found it extremely painful and it was enough to make him want to come back — not just once but twice more.”
Part of what Short admired most about Bourdain was his ability to show places that everyone could relate to.
“He came and saw this thriving country as an example of what it could be if it wasn’t for all the chaos, war and uncertainty. He was just so fascinated.”
He said he thought people connected with Bourdain because he was honest and genuine, and always said what he meant.
“No arguments about that. That is something that really appeals to people,” Short said.
“You feel like you have a relationship with this person, like he’s your best friend. His wit and humor and his ability to suddenly, in an awkward situation, say one thing that can relax the room. Everyone loves someone who can make you laugh.”
When Bourdain visited Iran in 2014, he said he came back with a confusing picture of the country, as what he experienced was so at odds with what he understood of the country from the vision portrayed by the US government.
He went on: “I have said that Iran is the most outgoingly warm, pro-American place we’ve ever shot, and that’s true: In Tehran, in spite of the fact that you are standing in front of a giant, snarling mural that reads ‘DEATH TO AMERICA!,’ we found that you will usually be treated better by strangers — meaning smiles, offers of assistance, curious attempts to engage in limited English, greetings and expressions of general good will — than anywhere in Western Europe.”
He added: “This is not a black-and-white world — as much as people would like to portray it as such. That’s not an apology for anything. I’m just saying that the brief, narrow slice of Iran we give you in this episode of Parts Unknown is only one part of a much deeper, multihued, very old, and very complicated story. Like anything as ancient and as beautiful as the Persian Empire, it’s worth, I think, looking further. But it’s also a place that can warm your heart one day and break it the next.”
Iranians, including some living in other parts of the world, praised Bourdain on Twitter for capturing their country in a different light to the usual Western media reports and government rhetoric.