I've never met anyone interested in the world around them who isn't terribly envious of Anthony Bourdain. Fans of his books, shows like No Reservations and Parts Unknown know that he is far more than a roving chef. He is a keen observer of the human condition who leverages mankinds's shared passion for a well-cooked meal as a tool of discovery. In over a decade of circling the globe he has seen the best and worst that humanity has to offer and he has seen it in more places than the vast majority of us could ever hope to visit. This broad experience, and the ability to think deeply about the world around him, truly sets him apart. It's also why interviewing him for Blogs of War is an absolute no-brainer.
John Little: So I would not be surprised if some readers are confused by your appearance on a war blog but conflict, history, geography, and food are intimately related aren't they?
Anthony Bourdain: I wouldn't have thought so when I first set out traveling the world with nothing really on my mind but shoving food in my face, but right away--very early on--I came to realize that everything, particularly something as intimate as a meal, is a reflection of both a place's history and its present political and military circumstances. In fact, the meal is where you can least escape the realities of a nation's situation. People tend to be less guarded and more frank (particularly when alcohol is involved). What you are eating is always the end of a very long story--and often an ingenious but delicious answer to some very complicated problems. Within months of leaving the professional kitchen for what turned out to be a non-stop voyage around the world, I found myself in the Mekong delta sitting down and getting hammered with a group of former VC. The senior member of the group was a very old dude, who when I asked if he felt any animosity towards me, towards my country, why he was being so damned nice, laughed in my face and started ticking off all the other countries he'd fought in his time: Chinese, French, Japanese, Cambodians, Chinese again. He basically said, "don't flatter yourself that you were anything special--now drink!". When you travel with no agenda other than asking the simple questions, sharing a moment with people around the table, people tell you extraordinary things. You tend to notice things that can't be avoided. The guy cooking dinner for me near The Plain of Jars in Laos was missing a few limbs. It was worth asking how that happened. The answer--though simple--tends, in such circumstances--to lead to very complicated back stories. In this case, a simple, question with a very long and frankly fascinating answer (our enormous secret war in Laos).
But finding myself in Beirut during the 2006 war was clearly a defining moment for the show--and some kind of crossroads for me personally. To stand there, day after day, useless and relatively safe by a hotel pool, looking at the people and the neighborhoods I had just been getting to know being hammered back 20 years a few short miles away was ..well..it was something. And the complete disconnect between what I was seeing and hearing on the ground from Beirutis of all stripes and what was being reported was something that stuck with me. Beirut is such a fantastic city--a place of such unbelievable possibilities. You can be sitting by the pool or listening to techno in a club one minute and having a wary conversation with Hezbollah ten minutes later. Its a very short ride. For all its problems ( all the problems and all the evils in the world in miniature, basically), it's an absolutely magical, gorgeous city. Impossible to not fall in love with. It's pheromonic. Some cities just smell good the second you land.
After Beirut, there was a conscious effort to tell more complicated stories . We realized that when you ask people "What do you like to eat? What do you like to cook? What makes you happy?" and are willing to spend the time necessary to hear the answers, that you are often let "in" in ways that a hard news reporter working a story might not be. So I've been able to look at places like post Benghazi Libya, the DRC, Liberia, Haiti, Cuba, Gaza, the West Bank, Kurdistan and recently Iran from a very intimate angle. Those are all very long stories--and if you don't take that time to listen, to take in the everyday things--the things that happened before the news story, there's not much hope in understanding them.
An interesting thing we noticed a while back was when we were shooting in pre-revolution Egypt. When we expressed a desire to shoot a segment at one of the ubiquitous street stands selling ful, our fixers and translators, who, no doubt also worked for some sinister department of the Interior Ministry, were absolutely adamant that we not do it. What was it about this simple, everyday, working class meal of beans and flatbread that just about everyone in Cairo was eating that was so threatening? Turns out, they knew better than us. The price of bread had been going up. The army controlled most of the bakeries and stocks of flour. There had been riots over bread elsewhere in the country. And the inescapable fact was that ful was ALL that much of the population was eating and the bastards knew it. That was an image they apparently considered sensitive , dangerous: their countrymen eating bread.
If you're going to shoot in a place like the Congo, you can't just show up and ask what's for dinner--it's essential to know the history. It's so central to everything you see and experience. It hangs over everything, practically suffocates it at times. "Why are things like this?" You need at least a clue. You have to read up before you even think about going. (In my case, Congo has been a decades long obsession) . Otherwise you'll look like an idiot. Or worse, find yourself in some serious shit.
Some environments,like Libya, its nice to know the history but events on the ground change so quickly it almost doesn't matter. You have to develop a whole new style of moving and adapting. You learn as you go. And you learn fast.
John Little: Your work has taken you to more parts of the world than most of us could ever hope to see. Is it difficult to reconcile the hospitality you receive on your travels and the commonality of experience we have with food with the brutal reality we see around us every day?
Anthony Bourdain: It is a constant series of surprises, of having everything I thought I knew turned upside down. People nearly everywhere have been lovely to me. Most places,people are extremely proud of their food and are frankly flattered when somebody asks about it. Palestinians in particular seemed delighted that someone--anyone--would care to depict them eating and cooking and doing normal, everyday things--you know, like people do. They are so used to camera crews coming in to just get the usual shots of rock throwing kids and crying women.
I used to think that basically, the whole world, that all humanity were basically bastards. I've since found that most people seem to be pretty nice--basically good people doing the best they can . There is rarely, however, a neat takeaway. You have to learn to exercise a certain moral relativity, to be a good guest first--as a guiding principle. Other wise you'd spend the rest of the world lecturing people, pissing people off, confusing them and learning nothing. Do I pipe up every time my Chinese host serves me some cute animal I may not approve of?
Should I inquire of my Masai buddies if they still practice female genital mutilation? Express revulsion in Liberia over tribal practices? Fact is, the guy who's been patting my knee all night, telling jokes, sharing favorite Seinfeld anecdotes, making sure I get the best part of the lamb, being my new bestest buddy in Saudi Arabia will very likely later, on the drive back to the hotel, guilelessly express regret over what "the Jews and the CIA" did to my city on 911. What do you say to that? Or in Anatolia, the Kurdish religious elders there who asked me for reassurance that "Obama is indeed a Muslim, yes?". I hated to disappoint them. So I didn't. My first obligation, I feel, is to be a good guest. I go to great lengths, and have had to choke down some pretty funky meals to do that. Its a strategy I highly recommend if you're looking to make friends and have a good conversation. Sometimes you have to take one for the team but its well worth it.
Iran was mind-blowing. My crew has NEVER been treated so well--by total strangers everywhere. We had heard that Persians are nice. But nicEST? Didn't see that coming. Its very confusing. Total strangers thrilled to encounter Americans, just underneath the inevitable "Death To America" mural. The gulf between perception and reality, between government policy and what you see on the street and encounter in peoples homes, in restaurants--everywhere--it's just incredible. There's no way to be prepared for it.
Trying to reconcile the very real consequences of Iranian foreign and national policy with the way Iran is internally--and who is actually living there, how old they are, what they actually want and believe in. VERY confusing.
Its easier to think of Iran as a monolith--in an uncomplicated, ideological way. More comfortable, too. Life ain't that simple . It IS complicated. And filled with nuance worth exploring.
A constant on my travels is nice, incredibly hospitable people, often very reasonable people. Unfortunately, another constant is that nice, reasonable people are being ground under the wheel.
John Little: You visited Gaza and the West Bank in season two of your show Parts Unknown. You showed a rare ability to find hope and tragedy on all sides. Did filming that episode change your view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in any way? On a personal level does that awareness lead anywhere positive or do you just find yourself hopelessly conflicted?
Anthony Bourdain: Its impossible to see Gaza, for instance, the camps, the West Bank and not find yourself reeling with the ugliness of it all. The absolute failure of smart, presumably good-hearted people on both sides to find something/anything better than what we've arrived at. And the willingness of people to not see what is plainly apparent, right there, enormous and frankly, hideous. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it's nearly impossible to even describe reality much less deal with it. It's utterly heartbreaking.
John Little: Your introduction to that show really resonated with me. You said "There's no hope, none, of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off...By the end of this hour I will be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool. a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent, and worse." Unfortunately, this is a typical day for me on Twitter. The inability to have an honest public discussion about this conflict without facing virulent attacks from all sides only perpetuates the tragedy doesn't it? Was the inevitable blow-back cause for any trepidation on your part or did you just charge in?
Anthony Bourdain: I thought about how I was going to do a show in the region for a very long time. And yes, there was a lot of trepidation. And I knew there would be recriminations and unhappiness no matter what I did or said or showed. But ultimately, I decided to just say, fuck it and take it head on. Frankly, it was much better received than I could ever have expected. The reaction from the Arab and Palestinian community was overwhelmingly positive--which I found both flattering and dismaying. I say dismaying because I did so little. I showed so little.It seems innocuous. But it was apparently a hell of a lot more than what they are used to seeing on Western television. For some, unfortunately, depicting Palestinians as anything other than terrorists is proof positive that you have an agenda, that you have bought in to some sinister propaganda guidelines issuing from some evil central command in charge of interfacing with Western com/symp dupes. A photo of a Palestinian washing their car or playing with their child is, therefore automatically "propaganda."
I recently retweeted a photo of two dead children on the beach in Gaza. I had walked on that same beach. The photo (which later appeared on the front page of the New York Times) was taken from--or near--the same hotel I had stayed in. I am the father of a 7 year old girl who I, of course, adore. I retweeted the picture with the comment that as a father, as someone who had walked that beach, I felt particularly horrified. That's all I said. The reaction? This was not, it would seem a "Oh, yeah? well, what about..?" situation. The photo did not require, one would think, any equivalency, a countervailing argument. It's a picture of dead children. Period. The appropriate reaction, one would think would be "How terrible!". But, as it turned out, of course, even this image would be hijacked by extremists of both sides, the conversation devolving into ugly racist shit and accusations.
This is all too often the world we live in now--where even a simple, heartfelt, human reaction--the kind of emotion any father would have--is tantamount to choosing sides.
If I have a side, its against extremism--of any kind: religious, political, other: there's no conversation when everybody is absolutely certain of the righteousness of their argument. That's a platitude. But it's still true.
John Little: So you told me in a previous exchange that you’re a bit of an espionage geek. You are fascinated by KGB defector Yuri Nosenko and you have picked mushrooms with Victor Cherkashin (the KGB counterintelligence officer who ran Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen). With all the travel, contacts you make, and fixers you employ I imagine that there must be more than a few moments where you and your crew cross paths with intelligence officials and spies. Does it ever get interesting? And as a frequent traveler, observer, writer, and relationship builder do you find that you share a lot of common ground with intelligence professionals?
Anthony Bourdain: Sometimes its charming. Often it's not. Often our fixers in a Communist country, for instance, will, after a few drinks, fess up. Basically they will admit they work for the intelligence service and will ask earnestly that we do whatever the hell we want as long as we don't embarrass them or make them look bad. They're supposed to be watching us, but chances are, they have people watching them too. We try to be sensitive to that. We are who we say we are. Our "agenda" is exactly what we said it was. So it's usually not difficult.
I've actually become good friends over the years with some of them. And its something we always have to think about: I can go back home and say whatever I want about my experiences in China, for instance. But the people who trusted us, hung out with us, helped us while we there--they remain. There can be consequences to what I end up saying on TV. Not for me. For the people who were with us while in country. I try, as best I can, to be sensitive to that. I'm not looking to put anybody in the soup. Even if they were spying on me. They are, after all, just doing their job.
I like grey areas, obviously. I like ambiguity (the Nosenko case being a terrific example) --and tend to enjoy the company of people who deal in ambiguity. Victor Cherkashin . Nice guy. Great host, lunch companion. A man who has done--what we would certainly describe as many bad things. I feel the same way about Ted Nugent. I don't have to agree with a guy to enjoy their company. As a political ideology and as a practical matter, I loath communism. However, I often find myself getting along very well with communists. I feel the same way about Red State America. Not my world, not always my point of view. But I always have a good time in gun country America and tend to like the people I meet. Palin sticker on your bumper or Che Guevara--if you have a sense of humor and enjoy food made with pride, chances are, we can be pals.
I assume I share one characteristic with a good case officer: empathy. I'm good at looking at things from the other guy's point of view. I can put myself in their shoes. I'm willing to reach out. I'm a good listener. The overlap pretty much ends there.
Convincing some poor slob to betray his country, though--which is pretty much the job of the spook--is something I'd never have the stomach for.
Blogs of War – John Little has been breaking national security news and leveraging thousands of conflict, intelligence, security, technology & political sources to provide level-headed analysis in a complex news environment since 2002.