Creating people's geographies
The Independent :: 30 September 2006 :: by Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain is famed for his dramatic culinary adventures. But when he set off to Lebanon, little did he know he was about to get caught up in a conflict where his world view would be turned on its head. Here, he describes his 10 days under fire.
I had gone to Beirut with high expectations, but my first impressions of the city exceeded those expectations with ease. For some time I had been hearing Beirut was back, that it was, again, the Paris of the Middle East. And sure enough, I met a lot of lovely people, who were proud of how tolerant the city had become. They were jubilant about having got rid of the Syrians. From whatever background they were, everyone seemed, at least, to be getting along.
The level of discourse was so high, so engaged. It struck me that Beirut really was the dream of the Middle East that [the US Defence Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and his neocons had been such vocal proponents of. But, still, the world stood by and watched that dream dismantled. It was a fun place, a beautiful place, filled with great people and great food. At no time did I feel any anti-Western sentiment. People were happy to see an American camera crew and to show us this great place.
We were there because of the food, of course; I’m in love with mezze, huge, groaning tables everywhere filled with these little, delicious treats. The worst thing was that we had so little time to enjoy all this stuff. We really only got the slightest taste. But we went to an everyday, workingclass kind of place on the first day – a Lebanese version of a diner – where they served extraordinarily high quality mezze.
And we went to a late-night shwarma joint that people used to go to after they’d hit the clubs. And we went to a couple of swanky nightclubs – there’s a big nightclub scene – where essentially the food and the scene are indistinguishable from South Beach, Miami, or LA. There was the Japanese food, and the French fusion, that you see everywhere now. Watching the bombings, it felt as if I were watching South Beach in flames.
When the trouble started, there was a day of denial. We had just finished filming at the Hariri memorial with a bunch of locals – one a Sunni, one a Shia, and one a Christian. They were all very happy about how the city had been rebuilt, were pointing out the new hotels and the newly restored older buildings. And right into the middle of this scene, we saw a few cars, filled with Hizbollah supporters, who were firing guns in the air, and setting off fireworks. Then we heard automatic weapon fire in the distance, as people started to celebrate the kidnapping of these two Israeli soldiers.
The immediate reaction among the people we were with was embarrassment. One of the guys looked resigned, saying: “They’ll destroy the country over this. We’re all going to pay for this.” But I think, at least that first night – and you know, the Beirutis love to brag about how they partied through the civil war, and how strong and resilient they are – we all took some of the local bravery on board. We all went out nightclubbing, and we stood on top of a roof, at an opening night party with well-dressed young Beirutis dancing and drinking and having a good time as Israeli jets flew overhead.
The full gravity of the situation didn’t dawn on us until we woke up the next morning, and I looked out of my window. About a mile off, was the airport we had flown in to, and it was in flames. That night, we watched as they rocketed the airport again. And the same Lebanese that had been telling us, “Don’t worry, we’ll just party right through this” started to melt away and run for Syria. We were left to our own devices.
The television network was anxious to get us out of harm’s way, and our loved ones back in the States were worried, too. Even we were aware about how worried everyone must have been, but we did still bear that that shameful sense that, “We’re American, we’re in a Western hotel, we’re invulnerable”.
We became anxious only later, when our driver, our fixer and everyone else started to leave us and we were assigned a Western security expert to move us to a safer part of town. But at no time did we fear for our lives. There was much more a sense of shame and of helplessness as we watched the people who lived there being bombed out of their homes. We were worried about losing power, losing communication, losing touch with the embassy, than the immediate threat of death. We were evacuated by the US Marines. So, we paid no price compared to the price the Lebanese paid.
I didn’t witness, at first hand, the destruction that was being wreaked. I didn’t see dead people, and I didn’t see people crawling through rubble. But we were in this terribly surreal position, that from around a swimming pool on a hill in Beirut, we watched – morning, afternoon and night – bombing runs and missile strikes. We heard from people we had met just a few days earlier that their homes had been flattened. That was strange. The hotel would shake on some of these bomb runs. It was the uncertainty, insecurity, that was the most difficult to deal with.
After we moved from the southern part of the city, to the Christian area, I didn’t feel any sense that we were going to be bombed. We did go through counter-surveillance and evacuation drills in the hotel, but it didn’t feel too serious compared to what we knew was going on in the rest of the country. We could watch television in the hotel. There was one network that was available in the hotel that had a 24-hour feed of both professional and amateur footage of the destruction in the south and in the city. We saw the Hizbollah channel, some European channels, including Sky News, and CNN. What little we saw, brought it home to us, what a surreal experience this was.
The hotel we were staying with was filled with a lot of Americans. It was the absence of any official statement from the American government that really made us anxious. The only thing we really saw from [the President, George] Bush was that little clip from the G8 summit, when the microphone was left on, and we heard that exchange between Bush and [the Prime Minister, Tony] Blair. That was being played for comedy value.
Everybody in the hotel, during that first week, was waiting for some kind of forceful statement, not a sweeping Middle Eastern policy statement, but something that said, “We’re taking this situation seriously”. That little clip was all we had. Bush chewing on a buttered roll while Blair tried to get his attention. It was that second mouthful, and the look in his eye as he reached for a second bite; he wouldn’t be distracted from the riveting attraction of his buttered roll to pay attention to what was happening in the Middle East. The effect of that footage was really dispiriting.
Most of the American citizens at the hotel were Lebanese-Americans who had returned to the city because things looked hopeful. They were just devastated. We were all Americans, together, but their hopes had been smashed. I came away discouraged, not just about any great policy decisions, but about the state of the world, and the brevity of the human attention span.
We had a very frustrating time getting out – it felt much like the evacuation of Saigon – an angry, unruly mob, being held back by non-English speaking Lebanese officials. But the most striking thing, that I will never forget, was how utterly wonderful the US Marines were. These kids, 20, 21 years old, talked to us like adults. They helped us on to a Second World War landing craft in a sensitive, caring fashion.
Many people were belligerent, or freaking out. And they knew that. I will never forget waking up on the deck of the USS Nashville. The captain of the ship had apparently instructed the marines to be our “personal cruise directors”. Every little group had a marine with them, passing the time of day, getting blankets and food. They behaved like human beings, and that shattered all my preconceptions about who marines actually are.
So, how do I feel as an American? I don’t know; I wasn’t happy about what I saw of our official response. But these marines pride themselves on being killingmachines. But I have never been treated by an organisation with such incredible sensitivity. They gave up their bunks, their blankets, their sheets, and a thousand small acts of kindness.
As for Beirut, I consider it the great unfinished business of my life. I feel so awful that we weren’t able to show the world how great the place was, for two days. As soon as I can, I will go back and do that show. Who won here? It seems to me like the bad guys won. Whatever the world did, it had exactly the opposite effect. Anything that makes Hezbollah the good guy is terribly wrong.
Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations is broadcast every Friday at 9pm on the Discovery Channel. Bourdain’s visit to Beirut will be shown on Discovery Real Time on Sunday 8 October at 10pm
As told to Ed Caesar