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Anthony Bourdain and his Eye-Opening Trip to Gaza

posted on: Jun 13, 2018

By: Udochi Esomonu/Arab America Contributing Writer

Popular Chef, television personality, storyteller, and author, Anthony Bourdain, through his exploration of global cuisine and culture, was an enthusiast for bringing to light the often unheard and neglected stories of the silenced and marginalized people of our world.

In 2013, for one of the episodes of his show Parts Unknown, in which Bourdain traveled and brought the realities of the world to the lives of television viewers through engaging with local chefs, writers, and home cooks, he traveled to Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza strip.

With the guidance of Laila El-Haddad, a native of Gaza and the co-author of the award-winning cookbook The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey, he explored the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, illuminating the humanizing perspective that the world had lacked the true sight of engaging with people who lived in the Gaza strip. Bourdain witnessed, firsthand, the severity of the livelihood of Palestinians, or the lack thereof, which is a direct result of the continuous inhumane Israeli military occupation of their land. Furthermore, Bourdain witnessed the reality of a political conflict that deconstructed the very nature of the human condition.

“What I did was not courageous, it was the most basic human responsibility. This is something that we should all be doing,” he said. “ It speaks volumes that people consider this courageous. The situation in Gaza today is one of the biggest tragedies.”

Together, El-Haddad and Bourdain, through the intersecting lens of politics and food, explored the possibility of initiating a different kind of conversation and of portraying a unique picture of the Palestinian experience that had long lacked presence to the global eye. Their dedication to experiencing and delivering the most accurate humanistic side of the everyday experiences of the people of Palestine came through their passions to bring about a deeper understanding of the various perspectives of life present in our world today. 

For El-Haddad and Bourdain, actually meeting and engaging with the very people who were living their lives in territorial confinement while under strict military supervision was their form of storytelling. This method of engagement allowed them to put a face to the situation, to the blockade, to the military occupation which still takes place today, and which continues to dictate and undermine the livelihood of such human beings.

Bourdain’s reaction to seeing the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian situation was met with much frustration as he couldn’t fathom such an active dehumanization of the human race. Due to such a reaction, he made efforts towards ensuring that the world’s ignorance of such an unseen side of reality remained no more.

“Unbelievable. I can’t believe the “explicit” that the Israelis are doing here, It is something that I had to see to believe.” He said, “I told the Israelis-you are not gonna like the cake you’re baking-it’s only a matter of time before it implodes.” El-Haddad commented on his reactions,“He kept going on about how shocked he was. His eyes were so close to it.” “So many people in America are not aware,” Bourdain exclaimed.

The airing of the episode in 2014, on CNN, became the first time that a mainstream American audience had seen Gaza in this humane light, far beyond the bounds of the facts of the conflict. For Bourdain, it was impossible for him to enjoy the cuisine and culture of Gaza without addressing the unfortunate reality that people on the strip face in their everyday lives.

“He wrote about his experience in Lebanon and how he realized that he could never just talk about a place’s food like that of a vacuum,” El-Haddad exclaimed as she reflected on his comments, “he believed that everything that was occurring politically in an environment was essential to what was on the plate”

Bourdain continued with this sentiment of addressing an environment’s environment while in Gaza as he became passionate about sharing the various stories of the many silenced people of Palestine whose lives had been depleted due to the present political climate.

El-Haddad reflected on Bourdain’s presence while experiencing the environment in Gaza “Tony was reflective, quiet, and contemplative of the situation.”

Bourdain’s dedication to delivering accuracy of the Palestinian experience was far beyond his own self. For Bourdain, covering the reality in Gaza, was something that he, as a human being, had to do. He remained adamant about telling the many untold stories and perspectives in Gaza as El-Haddad mentioned in her homage to him,  he said “We fought like hell, though, to air the episode and tell the stories we did–best we could tell them and I’m, on balance pretty happy-though definite reservations. In any event, all the right people are infuriated.” 

Anthony Bourdain used his platforms to alter the global conversation, humanize the unseen realities of our world, and shine the light on the beauty that is the livelihood of humanity. Bourdain will always be remembered as the great storytelling, unifying, and loving human being that he was.