Celebrity foodie Anthony Bourdain’s trip to Palestine highlights Gaza blockade, racist settlers ~ Alex Kane, assistant editor for Mondoweiss and World editor for AlterNet.
Anthony Bourdain with a group of local kids in Gaza. (Screenshot via @HelenCho)
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain finally made it to Israel/Palestine.
After years of traveling around the world to showcase foreign cuisines to American audiences, Bourdain at last took his camera crew to a place where food is intensely political.
The result was encouraging: a humanized portrait of both Palestinians and Israelis; a trip to Gaza where he witnesses the impact of the siege on fishermen there; and an ugly look at racist settlers intent on driving Palestinians out. There were imperfect moments, to be sure. But Bourdain’s episode was noteworthy for the ways it portrayed Palestinians, providing Americans a window into how ordinary Palestinians live–and eat. Food was as a highly visible backdrop to the episode, but the show kept circling back to the politics of the Holy Land.
The episode of Bourdain’s CNN show, “Parts Unknown,” begins with a jaunt to Jerusalem. Chef and author Yotam Ottolenghi, an Israeli, is his guide. They tiptoe around that age-old question of who invented falafel. “Is there a historically provable answer to who invented it?” asks Bourdain. The answer from Ottolenghi does not address head on the appropriation of falafel, nor the complexity of how it became a popular dish in Israel.
“The one thing that’s very clear that — in this part of the world, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, it’s been cooked for many, many, many generations,” he says, though he later adds that “there is actually no answer to it.”
The missteps are easy to point out. Bourdain tells viewers that “Israel began construction on a wall along the Green Line representing the Israeli-Palestinian border.” While he accurately adds that “Eighty-five percent of it [is] in Palestinian territory,” those two statements can’t jive with each other, and the first is dead-wrong. Even a cursory look at a map of the wall shows that is snakes deep into the West Bank, meaning that the separation barrier is nowhere close to being built “along the green line.” Ottolenghi tells the chef that the problem with Israelis living is the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem is that it “breaks the separation that people would normally expect in this city.” That may be true, but the core problem of Israeli settlers living in the middle of occupied Jerusalem is that it’s illegal, and that it’s a step towards pushing Palestinians out–not that it takes a bite out of segregated spaces.
There’s no mention of the Nakba, though there is talk of “return.” And Bourdain also gives voice to Israeli suffering from rockets fired from Gaza, while omitting any mention of the massive Israeli violence inflicted on the people of Gaza in 2008-09 and 2012.
But those missteps are overshadowed by other revealing moments of the episode. Bourdain was disturbed at witnessing the aftermath of a “price-tag” attack in a village near an Israeli settlement. Graffiti painted on what is apparently a Palestinian home–it’s not so clear–reads, “Against Arabs, the state of Israel is alive, and death to the Arabs.”
Later on, while Bourdain sits down for dinner with an American-born Israeli settler in Ma’ale Levona, he asks the executive of Eli settlement, Amiad Cohen, why the graffiti remains up. The dialogue that ensues is the most awkward exchange of the episode (transcript taken from Lexis Nexis, and the unidentified male is Cohen):
BOURDAIN: So I’ve got to ask you about something that troubled me. Coming up, the first house before you come up the drive to this village, the graffiti on the front –
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
BOURDAIN: The targets spray painted on.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Villains. Bad people.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don’t know. Apparently kids. When we educate kids, kids are not able to understand complicated things. They see the world in black and white. When you get older, you’re able to see the gray. And when someone hits you –
BOURDAIN: I understand why kids would do it. Given what you told me earlier, identifying the perpetrators within the realm of possibility?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They’re young people.
BOURDAIN: Why not paint it over?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good question. I don’t know. Maybe we should. You’re right.
Then there’s his trip to Gaza. Bourdain’s guide is Laila El-Haddad, the Palestinian proprietor of the blog Gaza Mom and co-author of the book The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey. Haddad explains how there are three culinary traditions in Gaza: food from villages depopulated by Israel; food from Gaza City; and food from Gaza’s coast, which is dominated by seafood. What’s significant is that Haddad is allowed to speak for herself, providing a perspective not often seen on American TV.
“The catches are not as big as they used to be, and that’s primarily because the fishermen can’t go beyond three to six nautical miles,” says Haddad, explaining the Israeli Navy’s enforcement of the blockade. “They’ll shoot at the fishermen, they’ll spray cold water at them, they’ll destroy their boats, they’ll cut their fishing nets, they’ll detain them. So it’s obviously really risky business. Nine nautical miles, that’s where that deep sea channel is where you’re going to get the really good catches.”
You can hardly call an hour episode sprinting from Jerusalem to settlements to Ramallah to Gaza a deep dive into the food and politics of Israel/Palestine. But for a novice, Bourdain provides an interesting and human look at the reality in the region. It’s not perfect, but for CNN, it’s close enough.
Max Fisher, The Washington Post.
CNN food and travel host Anthony Bourdain’s excellent hour-long special on Israel-Palestine, in he which he explores both sides of the green line, begins with a line that could not ring truer for me.
“It’s 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,” he says of Israel-Palestine and particularly Jerusalem. “By the end of this episode, I’ll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an orientalist, fascist, socialist CIA agent and worse. So here goes nothing.”
Then he gets an instant bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. From there, he talks about falafel and borders, hummus and the occupation. He asks settlers why they tolerate “price tag” attacks against Palestinian communities. He points out Palestinian street art glorifying airplane hijackers. He goes to Gaza. He eats and eats and eats. You can watch the whole thing, and in pretty good quality, right here:
It’s not just Bourdain’s tortured ambivalence about the politics, both geo- and identity, that makes his Jerusalem program so good. He gets at, or at least tries to get at, some of the core issues by approaching them simply as a food and travel writer. He’s a tourist and foodie, but one exploring Jerusalem’s history and politics by way of its sights and smells. Much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in a way about identity, and food is a part of identity.
Food also humanizes. It’s a ritual we all know and that’s meant to bring people together. And we can all agree that both Israeli and Palestinian food is delicious – as well as being often quite similar.
Maybe most helpful is the way that Bourdain foregrounds his own struggle to navigate it all. That he is so wary of the politics, and skeptical of his own ability to understand it, makes him a potentially very effective proxy for regular American TV viewers.
The 45-minute tour of Jerusalem will not do much to edify Israel-Palestine experts or to move along the two-state peace process. But it’s not made for partisans or practitioners, it’s made for regular people back in the United States. The U.S. has an unusually crucial role to play in this particular crisis. Americans learning more about it – and, even more importantly, thinking critically as Bourdain does – can only be a good thing.
If you like the idea of learning about the Israel-Palestine conflict through food, check out “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” written by two chefs who were born in the Jewish and Arab halves of the city in the same year.
- Celebrity foodie Anthony Bourdain’s trip to Palestine highlights Gaza blockade, racist settlers (mondoweiss.net)
- Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” Season Two Kicks Off Sept. 15 (newday.blogs.cnn.com)
- Anthony Bourdain in Jerusalem (cnn.com)
- TV chef Bourdain reveals Jewish heritage during show in Israel (timesofisrael.com)
- Anthony Bourdain in Palestine: and Middle East cuisine (angryarab.blogspot.com)
- Anthony Bourdain comforts Nigella Lawson (dnaindia.com)
- Anthony Bourdain in Palestine: and Middle East cuisine (angryarab.net)
- A helpful introduction to life in Palestine: Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown’. (barefootinramallah.wordpress.com)
- Anthony Bourdain reveals Jewish heritage on ‘Parts Unknown’ Jerusalem (jta.org)
- Israel Relieves Suffering in Gaza, Egypt Intensifies It (blogs.the-american-interest.com)