On his birthday, let’s remember what why we all loved Anthony Bourdain: because he showed us how to love each other no matter who we are, a lesson of the highest importance in these increasingly uncivil times
“The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity. People are not statistics. That is all we attempted to show.” –Anthony Bourdain, accepting the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Voices of Courage and Conscience award
WASHINGTON — When it comes to the the tragic death of a bad-boy celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, I am filled with many emotions and many thoughts. He was one of the few public figures to which I have accorded my highest respect, an everyman who made it big, never forgot his roots, and never stopped caring for those who struggled in this world on a day-to-day basis, regardless of where they were from, their skin color, their creed. Taking the time to acknowledge who Anthony Bourdain was, what he stood for, and how he lived his life is one of the most necessary things at this time in history where we seem to be losing our humanity.
Bourdain traveled all around the world for many years, including in the Middle East, sharing food ostensibly, but truly sharing hearts and souls everywhere he went, making deeper connections with random people than most travelers can ever imagine.
As the above quote about the Palestinian people shows, Tony was not only a veritable poet, he was a voice for those who often have little or no voice, and he was a friend to many in the Middle East, in particular the Arab people. From Gaza to Libya, from Beirut to Tangiers, people in the Middle East and all over the world expressed their deep sadness at the news of Bourdain’s passing but also their deep appreciation of who he was, and his experiences in the Middle East had a profound effect on him.
In just recent years, he took his latest show—CNN’s Parts Unknown—to feature in detail and depth Tangiers in Morocco, Libya, Palestine and Israel, Beirut in Lebanon, and Oman, among many other non-Arab places. Usually over a meal, Tony brought not only the food, but the people, history, culture, and even politics of these Arab regions to many millions all over the world in ways that nobody else could and, in a television format, that nobody else has, reaching millions of viewers who have never been to these places and may never be able to visit them. In this way, he was a cultural ambassador for Arabs on a global level that few people have ever been, allowing individuals in all of these places to share Arab cuisine, Arab stories, Arab hopes and fears, Arab loves and losses.
Tony was a missionary for the belief that we as humans had more in common than that which divides us, always showing people and cultures respect and deep, genuine desires to listen and to learn, breaking bread with them even if he was coming from a totally different perspective
But he was also passionate about human rights and justice for the marginalized, especially migrants/immigrants and women who have suffered from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). His girlfriend at the time of his death was Asia Argento, herself a direct victim of the outrages of Harvey Weinstein; Bourdain was an early and fearless advocate for her and others suffering from sexual violence, calling those responsible out more quickly and stridently than most and fiercely supporting the #metoo movement.
Lastly, Tony’s battle that he ultimately lost with depression reminds us all of the crucial need people from all walks of life have for psychosocial support, and reminds us even more how at-risk communities, especially refugees, migrants, and women, have even less opportunity and access to such vital services.
Respecting each other despite our differences, coming to understand those different from ourselves, standing up for migrants, immigrants, and women was who Anthony was. The world is worse off for the loss of someone who was so much more than just a celebrity chef: we have all lost a passionate poet on the merits of respect and understanding, one who undertook more effort to understand and engage Arabs and people all around the world on their terms, and to bring their stories and concerns to a global audience, than almost anyone else. He was a warrior for the marginalized, especially migrants, immigrants, and women who were all too often the subject of abuse.
On his birthday, let us make sure that his memory can inspire all of us to do better and be forces of advocacy for the abused and marginalized, to remind us that we all share a common humanity with them, that they are really us in the end. Tony may have done this his whole life as a celebrity, but it is up to us to make sure that his spirit continues long after his death by using his example in our own lives to make simple, everyday acts of understanding, kindness, and respect central to our own lives and actions.
© 2019 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area currently based in Amman, Jordan. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981
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