“No Reservation,” the Anthony Bourdain travel show, was my first experience binge-watching any TV show. Since that time, a few years ago, I became a true fan of the show and the man.
Two weeks ago, I added his newer CNN show “Parts Unknown” to my “to-watch” list. Now that I have broken the generational gap, no longer do I watch shows when they come out, I wait until I can binge-watch them one season at a time.
As my cell phone blew up yesterday morning, Washington, DC local time, with breaking news of Tony’s death, I had the urge to watch the Saudi episode one more time. A personal eulogy to the man.
I felt the loss of this intrepid globetrotter in a way I haven’t felt about someone I never met. I felt the loss of a talented TV host who was able to show us the human factor in peoples we typically brush aside in simplistic, one dimensional, and almost always wrong stereotypical fashion.
That Saudi episode might have been an eye-opener for many, but it was a nostalgic home-video of sorts to someone like me. I left Saudi Arabia over 20 years ago without going back for any meaningful visits. As I re-watched the episode, I found myself identifying with Danya al-Hamrani, the warm and welcoming host who invited Mr. Bourdain to Saudi Arabia.
This fellow American-born Saudi, missed out on many Saudi specific experiences as I did. like Danya (up to the point of the filming of the episode), I never ate Dhub (desert lizard), camel meat, or lamb hearts. I am inspired now to make a culinary trip to Saudi Arabia suspending my vegetarianism to summon the courage to try such “delicacies.”
The episode reminded me of a time of simplicity and innocence. Even Tony’s demeanor in the episode is playful and cheerful. A markedly different Tony from the one who appears in other episodes.
I invite you to watch that episode if you haven’t yet, Episode#13 of Season 4, titled simply: Saudi Arabia. In contrast, you can pick up on Tony’s undercurrent of pompousness, standoffishness, or even contemptuousness show host personality at times in some other episodes.
The uniqueness of Anthony Bourdain’s shows is its ability to zoom out showing us what is beyond the margins of the news frame; i.e. beyond the myopic focus on violenceWalid Jawad
His unlikely mission
As I reflect on the man and his body of aired work I can’t help but admire Tony’s courage and skill in breaking down the prevailing dehumanizing facade we readily accept as we watch the alluring magical lightbox.
The same facade that serves intended or unintended agenda of fear, defensiveness, divisiveness, and hatred. His work was a serious attempt to counterbalance the destructive effects of daily news, even if it were not what he was set out to do.
An impossible situation as his weekly show stood firmly in the sea of relentless fear spewing collective. Yet he was able to move the needle farther along the scale of human connectedness than any other show I can think of.
They teach in journalism that common events are not newsworthy like when a dog bites a man. But when a man bites a dog it becomes an incident worthy of feeding the 24-hour news cycle.
Watching the news, we find the uncommon numerous and violence ubiquitous making what is supposed to be the exception common. Viewers can’t be blamed to point to TV sets concluding that the world is a dangerous place.
The sheer number of violent events locally and internationally prompts viewers to divide the world into two camps: evil perpetrators and innocent victims. More troubling is that evil seems to be winning by virtue of imposing its physical will on people.
I, for one, am guilty of adding fuel to the fire in more ways than I care to enumerate. Most of us in the media, if not all, believe that you, our fellow thinking humans, need to be informed and that it’s our mission to make you aware of such events.
Once you become knowledgeable, you are better equipped to make informed decisions about the world you live in. Unfortunately, the law of unintended consequences overshadows the intended benefits of gaining that knowledge.
Adopting a cause
The news viewing public fall into three major categories: some will decide to adopt a cause and fight, while others become overwhelmed and fearful of the environment and suspicious of humanity itself. And in between, those who will shutdown dismissing such reality, tuning out the anxiety-filled chatter of new channels. A social equivalent to fight, flight, or freeze responses.
Arts, entertainment, and hobbies are great options to attempt striking a personal balance, yet external fear mongering of the 24-hour news cycle remains unchecked. These channels have a purpose to serve and should continue their mission. It behooves us to understand the side effects.
The uniqueness of Anthony Bourdain’s shows is its ability to zoom out showing us what is beyond the margins of the news frame; i.e. beyond the myopic focus on violence. As much as the news wants to compels us to the contrary, violence is not an inevitability.
If we accept violence as the norm, we are surrendering intellectually under the weight of the emotional pressure of fear and sadness. The bigger picture Tony provided is a good reminder. Some of his episodes featured people from unfavorable countries or war-torn regions, yet we identify with them as human beings.
It is essential to understand that conflict is not "bad" in and of itself. In fact, conflict is a driving force to improve the human condition. Resolving conflicts between people leads to equality. Resolving conflict between us and our environment leads to innovation. Only when conflict turns violent that it becomes “bad.”
Tony’s showed us people from around the world consumed by what humans everywhere else are consumed by, living a peaceful and happy life. We got to know people of other cultures not as tourist, rather as locals. He was able to challenge his own stereotypical ideas of others and along the way broke our disinterested judgments of others.
I mourn the man because I mourn the mission. There is no one out there who can rise to the challenge. I will go back to my “to-watch” list and put Tony’s shows on top my binge-watching cue. I know this time I will watch his shows with the eyes of an anthropologist and the mind of a conflict resolver.
Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at US Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.