After Beirut in the summer of 2006, Bourdain decided it was time to tell more complicated stories, as he put it in that 2014 interview. “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,” Bourdain said. But he was also struck by “the complete disconnect between what [he] was seeing and hearing on the ground from Beirutis of all stripes and what was being reported” by the media, he said.
Bourdain developed a new approach that used conversations about food to tell the story and politics of the countries he visited in ways that hard news couldn’t. Perhaps Beirut had taught him what every Lebanese knows: that conversations around and about food allow people to let their guard down. Discussions about the secret source of your spices, or how to pound your meat, erase all differences.
And so off Bourdain went to make Parts Unknown, his next show, in Libya, Cuba, Haiti, Liberia, Iraq, Beirut again, and Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. He was horrified by what he saw in Gaza, and even more dismayed when he was criticized for showing Palestinians doing ordinary things, like cooking, as though that meant he had chosen sides. “The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity,” Bourdain said.
Every time I read Bourdain on Lebanon, I marvel at his ability to grasp the subtleties of a place where he’d never lived. There’s a joke about my country: If you think you understand Lebanon, someone’s just done a bad job explaining it to you. But he understood it just the way I did. “The food’s delicious, the people are awesome. It’s a party town. And everything wrong with the world is there,” he told Blogs of War. “Hopefully, you will come back smarter about the world. You’ll understand a little more about how uninformed people are when they talk about that part of the world,” he added. “You’ll come back as I did: changed and cautiously hopeful and confused in the best possible way.”
I suspect people in other countries Bourdain visited felt he understood them too, spoke for them, and saw them for who they were: ordinary people with real names, lives filled with hope, love stories, heartbreak, and laughter. He cared about people outside the lens of violence, beyond the headlines and the reductionist clichés. He broke down the barrier of the other, especially in countries with long-standing political enmity with the United States, like Iran and Cuba. Americans probably learned more about the world watching his shows than any news programs.
I don’t know why Bourdain decided to end his life. But I know he understood places and people intuitively. He grasped their pain, their intensity, and their humanity, in the way that only someone with great empathy could—the kind of empathy that comes with raw vulnerability and deep creativity, the kind that can bring with it inner demons.
In this age of dislocation and isolation, walls and travel bans, the world needs more Anthony Bourdains. Tragically, now it has none.