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.