Bourdain: Off-Balance in Beirut

Being a fan of “No Reservations” and other various food-travel TV shows, I was very excited to see Anthony Bourdain’s take on his 3rd visit to Beirut. After reading his thoughts on it and seeing the teaser flood my Newsfeed, it looks like we were all hoping for the visual version of what he says below:

“We soon met lovely people from every kind of background. We found fantastic food everywhere. A city with a proud, almost frenetic party and nightclub culture. A place where bikinis and hijabs appeared to coexist seamlessly — where all the evils, all the problems of the world could be easily found, right next to and among all the best things about being human and being alive.

This was a city where nothing made any damn sense at all — in the best possible way. A country with no president for over a year — ruled by a power sharing coalition of oligarchs and Hezbollah, neighbor problems as serious as anyone could have, history so awful and tragic that one would assume the various factions would be at each others throats for the next century. Yet you can go to a seaside fish restaurant and see people happily eating with their families and smoking shisha, who in any other place would be shooting at each other.”

When you read this, you expect that Bourdain is going to tell the world’s greatest love story. I couldn’t wait for YouTube. I streamed it last night. After watching all 42 minutes, the first word that comes to mind is heavy.

It’s not that he didn’t show an accurate side of Lebanon, it’s that he stressed more on one than the other. A massive refugee population, a strong resistance party fighting in Syria, and ISIS in our backyard. All true. After all, we were recently named the no.1 country with the most refugees/1000 inhabitants. BUT,  there are other “parts unknown” that Bourdain didn’t highlight which is a major disservice for a country that already has a negative connotation in the media. Just ask Jad Aoun.

What bugged me was his episode didn’t look any different than what is normally featured on CNN: a statue of the Virgin Mary followed by a slow pan of a lingerie ad in a window, a duality common to their productions involving anything Lebanese. The channel tends to present Beirut in a very polarized manner: we’re either the really sexy party-animals of the Levant or a war-ravaged diamond lost in the backward ways of the Arabian peninsula. In Beirut by Samir Kassir, the city is described as “a convenient stopover on the road to the romance of the East, far enough from home that travelers could claim to have penetrated a remote world, but one that at the same time was agreeable enough to dissuade them from pressing on into the interior.” Yup, that sounds about right. That’s what I was told Singapore was to the rest of the Far East: the right ratio of West and East so that you felt like you were comfortably away from home.

He did state that his first visit to Beirut made him feel like his shows needed to be about more than just food:

“I came away from the experience deeply embittered, confused—and determined to make television differently than I’d done before. I didn’t know how I was going to do it—or whether my then network 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.”  

But seriously, where was the food? He’s done Beirut food episodes so maybe he was trying to look at it with a new lens, serving us another installment of his experience here. Nothing featured in the episode was an untrue depiction of our city. Bourj el Barajneh and Dahieh are not our finest areas but they’re still part of Beirut (Greater Beirut) and we cannot deny what exists just because it isn’t shiny or flattering. It was a straight dose of what we’re currently dealing with. The only thing Bourdain is guilty of is not showing both sides of the coin for viewers who’s first helping of Bourdain’s Beirut would be this episode alone. That, and using the ski-and-swim-in-one-day cliche. Just no.

The beauty of Beirut is that it is home to destruction and decadence, a playground for the unfortunate plight of Syrian refugees, the vacationing Arabs of the gulf, and the rainbow of multifaceted Lebanese people. There was a lot missing if he was going to go the socioeconomic route: where was the talk about our activists fighting for equal human rights and heritage? The focus on the gentrification/development of the creative hub of Mar Mikhael that doesn’t solely revolve around hip-hop music, but also includes an old train station, design studios, and an at-risk semi-private garden? The start-up ecosystem brewing here? Hanna Mitri’s homemade ice cream? Our culinary game isn’t just about kibbeh neyyeh.

I’m sure Bourdain would’ve been bashed if he only talked about Joseph’s shawarma and parties at Garten/Decks/Grand Factory. It is a challenge to find a balance when talking about Beirut’s pros and cons – but it’s an even bigger challenge to capture them all on film and pack them into 42 minutes. He ended it nicely. I’ll give him that.

“Everybody should come here. Everyone should see how complicated, how deeply troubled, and yet at the same time, beautiful and awesome the world can be. Everyone should experience, even as the clouds gather, what’s at stake, what could be lost, what’s still here.”

I read through some of the episode’s comments on his Facebook page. Bourdain’s team did not include enough of what the Lebanese think of their own city and he’s definitely hearing what they think now. I just hope that the Lebanese people are as honest with their country’s reality as he was. We should keep in mind that, like the bullet holes in the buildings, we don’t see everything the way an outsider would. He was off-balance when it comes to showing the world what Beirut is about but let’s make sure we don’t do the same mistake when we defend it.

Now can someone tell me where Broasted Rizk is?!

2 thoughts on “Bourdain: Off-Balance in Beirut

  1. Beautifully written. I actually authored my own take on his production earlier this morning–your feedback is always welcome!

    The episode was definitely an imbalanced tribute to Beirut, and he certainly did play socioeconomic analyst more than gourmand at large. But what impressed me most is that finally a non-Lebanese was able to grasp the subtleties of life in these parts and what makes it so damned beautiful despite being so damned dysfunctional. He showed it as he saw it, and for that, we gotta give him some credit.

    If you read the comments on the Facebook page of “Parts Unknown,” those authored by non-Lebanese are extremely positive and gung ho about visiting Lebanon because of Bourdain’s portrayal. So in all honesty, I don’t think he failed–what he dished up is bait for the previously uninformed would-be tourist.

    • Thanks Danielle, I’ll definitely check yours out!

      I agree – I don’t think he was entirely off base, we just forget what it’s like to be here. Objectively, those issues are going to stand out to someone visiting. They’re going to be the questions foreigners ask about based on news reports of the region. He did, however, show that life was still going on regardless.

      It seemed like a natural progression in a story that started in 2006, was continued in 2010, and now the shit got real – pardon my French. He probably has more material for prospective episodes. I don’t think he’s done telling the story of Beirut.

      P.S. I especially liked the line about the sea being the best neighbor we have!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s