PROFILE OF THE WEEK By Dr Dhanpaul Narine
You told us, ‘Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don’t have.’ You had character, were irreverent at times, told our stories with honesty and gusto and were uncompromising in your quest to give a voice to the voiceless. We turned off the television when they put on your shows as a tribute. We had seen them all before. You had us glued for the next installment when you waved the wand and explored another culture at the dining table.
There are many stories within the story and they bring us closer to our own humanity, to that place where we realize that we have more in common with each other. A number of Bourdain’s shows stand out for their universal message, of wanting to belong and to be accepted and loved, despite the differences in language and shades of gray.
Bourdain was the food anthropologist delving into a culture as he sat across the table eating the local fare and dissecting the problems of the day. In Hanoi, he sat on stool and drank and ate with President Obama. The charm and simplicity of the occasion captivated a worldwide audience as they saw both men in a new light.
The program about Libya was said to be one of his best. He went there in 2013 and said that although the people were friendly ‘bad things can happen to nice people.’ Bourdain and his crew filmed under dangerous conditions as local militias fought for territory and jurisdiction.
According to Bourdain, ‘it was not uncommon for my crew and I to be roused by security late at night, told to pack our bags, grab our passports, get ready to head for the airport. I am very, very grateful to my stressed out crew that we stayed.’ The result was beautiful camera work but more important it was meeting ordinary people that wanted to live peacefully in their country and to enjoy basic needs, like everyone else.
In 2014, after several years of trying, Bourdain was allowed into Iran. Here too, the people were friendly and took a delight in showing Bourdain around and sharing their food with him. But his interview with Jason Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh Saheli did not go down well with the authorities. Rezaian was the correspondent of the Washington Post in Tehran.
Rezaian and Yeganeh were arrested by the Iranian authorities, after the interview. This affected Bourdain greatly; the couple were eventually released and are back in Washington. When Myanmar relaxed its grip on totalitarianism it seemed natural that Bourdain would visit there. As he says, ‘ Stepping foot into Myanmar felt like trespassing uncharted territory.’ He wanted clarity in the midst of cultural chaos.
The result was a program that showed Mynamar in a new lens, a country of diversity with hardworking peoples and with love for technology. But the street fare was less inviting as Bourdain found out when he had to use the immodium! It was natural that Bourdain would turn his attention to the Caribbean. His show on Jamaica showed him at Port Antonio sipping rum punches and bemoaning the loss of native culture.
Bourdain’s visit to Trinidad and Tobago was eagerly awaited. What would he say? If he was in Trinidad then Guyana might be next. We wondered if a Guyana trip was planned at all. Certainly, Bourdain must have heard about the oil find in a land of six races and with most of its population abroad!
Trinidad was praised for its hospitality and its cuisine but its social make-up showed a country that needed a firm grip at the wheel. The crime statistics keep increasing and good number of young people left to fight for ISIS. Bourdain concluded that there ‘is another Trinidad outside the view of our cameras and that Trinidad is complicated.’
If Trinidad was complicated what could one say about Armenia? Bourdain was asked repeatedly when he would visit Armenia. The show on Armenia was aired in May 2018 and became one of Bourdain’s final offerings. The Armenian population at home, and in the diaspora, waited to hear if Bourdain would use the ‘G’ word. He did not disappoint. He described Turkey’s intrusion in Armenia in 1915 as a genocide.
According to Bourdain ‘those horrendous events and Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge them remain central to any discussion of Armenia-a fundamental, unifying factor in defining what it means to be Armenian.’ This observation, in the company of Armenians over a meal, is deep and profound and is worthy of the assessment of senior politicians in the State Department.
Bourdain is no more. We may never know what made him take his own life. He seemed to have it all, and to have it together. He journeyed across the planet with a certitude that was spellbinding. But then again, the exterior demeanor can be a mask for the tempest that rages in the soul.
In the end there was one certainty: in Anthony Bourdain there were parts that were unknown. May he rest in peace. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
Anthony Bourdain. We’ll miss you, rest in peace.