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‘There’s nothing more political than food’
I wandered into this podcast looking to hear Anthony Bourdain’s voice. Growing up on a staple diet of travel shows basically meant growing up watching – and listening – to Bourdain. So, in the immediate aftermath of his death, reading his writing (the thing that originally made him famous) wasn’t really hitting the spot.
Listening to him chat with David Remnick, though, did. We’ve all been talking about bun cha the last couple of days – the Hanoi speciality that Bourdain shared with former US President Barack Obama. But the food that sticks out in this episode is actually foul (or ful), an Egyptian preparation of fava beans.
As Bourdain put it, it’s not a meal in Egypt, it’s the meal in Egypt. So, while shooting in pre-Arab Spring Egypt, Bourdain and his crew wanted to get a shot of this ubiquitous street food. However, their fixers just wouldn’t allow it.
Eventually, a producer faked a violent bout of diarrhea and created enough of a distraction for the cameramen to get the job done.
Why the fuss about shooting ful? Because, according to Bourdain, the fixers “understood what we did not.”
It wasn’t about the fact that they didn’t want the rest of the world to see that this is what Egyptians ate. The fixers, on behalf of the government, were afraid that Egyptians would watch this episode of Bourdain’s show, then go on to watch an episode about France or somewhere else, and look at their own food in a new – and unflattering – light.
“There’s nothing more political than food,” said Bourdain.
And here, in the context of “bread riots” and the rationing of flour, the already-nervous government was afraid that Egyptians would learn that they could have more than just ful. That the rest of the world did already have more.
Bourdain told Remnick, “I think they saw it as potentially angering to their own people. I mean, they knew well that this is all we got. Who’s eating what is something we started to show and had more importance than we realised.”
Although he was often called a journalist by other people, Bourdain never self-identified as one. He liked going to places and asking people simple questions like ‘what food makes you happy?’ That’s obviously not all there is to a question like that. However, Bourdain understood – and explained to Remnick – that it’s much easier to answer simple questions like that than launch into an explanation of what you think about your government. But, at 2 am, after a few beers and a lot of warm conversation, you might entrust Bourdain with that information yourself.
Practically everyone has honoured Bourdain by talking about how he brought virtually un-seen places into their living rooms via their TV screens. The man shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he shot in Burma, he shot in pre-Arab Spring Egypt.
I know we complain about the same old-same old appearing on our screens routinely. But, the underlying truth is that all of us gravitate towards the stories we are familiar with because we like the validation of confirming what we’ve always thought. It makes us more confident in our opinions, it whisks us away from uncertainty. Bourdain didn’t just lean into that uncertainty himself, he somehow convinced most of the world to do it with him.
His gift – and I mean this as talent and also his present to us – lay in actually getting audiences invested in his interests. And he did it without simplifying the narratives of those he was representing. Those of us, ahem me, who complain about the simplicity of stereotypes don’t like to acknowledge that these things still sell. The market supplies what audiences demand, and most people still demand simplification. Bourdain’s shows made money, were popular and did not succumb to that pressure to simplify.
‘Sorry that some sentiments have been hurt’
Twisting the narrative doesn’t usually work this well. In fact, it usually goes wrong.
Priyanka Chopra had to issue a public apology recently for a Quantico plot that hit too close to home. (Or, as the overpowering narrative went – was so outrageously fictional that it deserved a clarification. Yeah, I’m not sure how that logic works, either.)
I’m extremely saddened and sorry that some sentiments have been hurt by a recent episode of Quantico. That was not and would never be my intention. I sincerely apologise. I'm a proud Indian and that will never change.
— PRIYANKA (@priyankachopra) June 9, 2018
In the show, Chopra’s FBI agent character foiled a plot by Hindu extremists to not only carry out a terrorist attack in the US, but also frame Pakistani Muslims for it.
Islamophobia has hit such a high, predictable note, that even mainstream TV feels the need to switch it up.
However, Hindus all over India lost their minds. So, Chopra had to issue that vaguest of apologies – ‘Sorry for hurting sentiments’.
Just like with the ful, this ruckus isn’t about what American audiences will think of this depiction of Hindus; it’s about what Indian audiences may start to see thanks to this fictional narrative.
In this column, Gurpreet Singh points out several examples of Hindu extremism. According to Singh, “Terrorism in the name of Hinduism isn’t just a myth or fiction. It is another ugly reality that needs worldwide recognition, much as Islamic State or any other form of jihadi extremist movement deserves.”
He starts with the obvious one, “It was Hindu extremists, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi”.
Unfortunately, without citing any specifics, Singh also points out that Hindu extremists have been responsible for violence against minorities, especially Muslims and Christians. An example that comes to mind is overzealous gau rakshaks. However, while Singh continues to think of them as ‘extremists’, when such behaviour is normalised, it’s more appropriate to call such non-state actors ‘vigilantes’.
So, the question isn’t just whose sentiments Chopra hurt, but also what these sentiments were exactly. What did this entirely fictional, not-very-realistic plot twist show that we are so angry about? (Answer: the possibility of this being reality)
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Sometimes, there are six sides to a story
Maybe the reason Bourdain got away with showing us different perspectives and shifting the narrative was because he found a not-so-blamey way to do it. He just sort of nonchalantly constructed a different way of seeing things and we went along with it because it was engaging. At the same time, he didn’t shy away from addressing unpopular opinions about the US’s own conduct.
Bourdain voiced unapologetic, well-researched and aggressive opinions (and, somehow, we loved him anyway). Here’s what he said about Kissinger.
— Jacobin (@jacobinmag) August 17, 2016
It’s hard to hold different perspectives in our heads. It’s even harder to describe several perspectives and somehow remain coherent. It’s slightly easier to do this with pictures than with words.
German journalist, Fabian Reinbold, demonstrated this with six different shots of the same meeting at the G7 summit.
The first one, tweeted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s team is now deservedly viral. But the others, from the various countries involved in the discussion, show the slightly tweaked versions of reality each nation chooses to deliver.
In stark contrast to Merkel’s perspective, is this one from the US which shows US President Donald Trump speaking to an attentive, and laughing audience. Totally different vibe from the exasperated, aggressive faces surrounding him in the first shot.
One scene – four different perspectives #G7
1) by Merkel‘s team ??
2) by Macron’s team ??
3) by Conte’s team ??
4) by Trump’s team ?? pic.twitter.com/q3qaSfaiQS
— Fabian Reinbold (@fabreinbold) June 9, 2018
…and two more:
5) by Trudeau‘s photographer ??
6) by Abe‘s team ?? pic.twitter.com/VGgFtNxQ6C
— Fabian Reinbold (@fabreinbold) June 10, 2018
Looking at all of these together gives us something close to the ‘truth’ (and it’s not the smiling faces listening to Trump). There’s no way to ‘know’ a thing if you rely on just one narrative. Practically everyone loved Bourdain because he strove to present something authentic. In itself, that’s a common enough goal, but what made Bourdain’s storytelling so potent was his understanding of the fact that we can’t get to ‘authentic’ with a one-sided story.
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