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Celebrity chef humanizes Palestinians on trip to the holy land

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain recently traveled to Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza to spotlight Palestinian and Israeli food on his CNN show. However, once he arrived in the holy land, it was impossible for Bourdain to avoid things Israelis often prefer to forget about: the settlements, the wall, and Gaza. 

By Amer Zahr

Something amazing happened on CNN last night. Palestinians were portrayed as human beings.

In his show “Parts Unknown,” Anthony Bourdain travels to exotic and controversial locales to examine the intersection of food, politics, and everyday life. Last night, he visited Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.

He was immediately mesmerized by Palestine, which is a common phenomenon. It is an amazing place, where the gravity of the history and spirituality is heavy in the air. It feels majestic. But something is a little off. Bourdain felt the splendor, but, as he said, “Then you see the young draftees (teenage Israeli soldiers holding machine guns) in the streets, and you start to get the idea.”

He began his journey with an Israeli chef and author, Yotam. They started by tasting some falafel in Jerusalem’s Old City. Yotam told the audience, in a stunning admission, “Israelis made falafel their own, and everybody in the world thinks falafel is Israeli, but in actual fact, it is as much Palestinian, even more so, because it’s been done for generations here… The question of food appropriation is massive here.”

Now if they could only say the same thing about the land, the houses, and the air, we might be able to get somewhere.

Bourdain then made his way into the West Bank. And on his way to visit a settlement, he said something that Americans never hear on TV:

In 2003, Israel began construction on a wall along the green line representing the Israeli-Palestinian border. The wall now stretches 450 miles. When completed, it will span 700 miles, 85% of it in Palestinian territory… Since 1967, 500,000 Israeli settlers have moved into the West Bank, all in contravention of international law, many in contravention of Israeli law, though in effect it seems to make little difference, they’re here and in ever larger numbers.

Anthony, you will be hearing from certain individuals and organizations in the coming days. They will be upset. They’ve been trying to keep this stuff a secret.

Before he got to the settlement, he noticed some Hebrew graffiti on a Palestinian house in a neighboring village. His driver translated it for him: “Death to Arabs.”

Anthony, you will be hearing from certain individuals and organizations in the coming days. They will be upset. They’ve been trying to keep this stuff a secret.

Bourdain finally made it to the settlement of Eli. Eli is located north of Ramallah and in the heart of the West Bank. It is nowhere near the 1967 borders. He asked its chief executive, Amiad, what Palestinians might think of its existence. He told Bourdain, “Actually they are happy we are here. We gave them prosperity for the past 45 years.” I was worried the show might go in a bad direction, but then Bourdain said, “I’m guessing a lot of people would disagree with that statement.” Wow, I think he’s getting it. Then Bourdain said, “So, from the high ground, you can see anyone walking at night, you can see pretty far out.” Wow, he is getting it!

Anthony, you will be hearing from certain individuals and organizations in the coming days. They will be upset. They’ve been trying to keep this stuff a secret.

As Bourdain prepared to leave Eli, he brought up the disturbing graffiti he saw with Amiad. “Why not paint it over?” he asked innocently. The response? “Good question. Maybe we should. You’re right.” I’m sure Anthony knows he’s not the first person to suggest such a thing. Now, Anthony, I am a bit more experienced with Israeli talk than you are, so let me translate that. “Good question. Maybe we should. You’re right,” really means, “Silly question, we definitely won’t, get out of my face.”

Bourdain then made a quick visit with a now famous group of Palestinian female drivers called “The Speed Sisters.” Now this visit had nothing to do with food, but he was able to be in a car alone with Betty Saadeh, a hot Palestinian woman. And you don’t turn down an opportunity like that. He even looked like he caught a little case of Palestinian fever. I can relate.

After visiting Jerusalem, Bourdain took the short but interesting drive into Bethlehem, through a checkpoint, and past the infamous wall:

It’s right there for all to see. And it feels like something out of a science fiction film. This is the wall. From the other side, from inside this place, it doesn’t feel like anything other than what it is. A prison.

Anthony, you will be hearing from certain individuals and organizations in the coming days. They will be upset. They’ve been trying to keep this stuff a secret.

Bourdain visited Aida refugee camp, just north of Bethlehem. There he met Abdelfattah Abusrour, my friend, and the founder of Ruwwad, a group that uses theatre for young people to express their desires and feelings. Abusrour sees Ruwwad as nonviolent resistance, a way for young people to express themselves, creating what he calls “a peace from within.”

The honest portrayal of the residents of the camp, from their squalor to their own struggle to find productive channels of resistance, was something I had never seen on American TV. Bourdain noted that these Palestinian children do not have the luxury of idolizing pop stars and athletes. They turn to politics early, sometimes idolizing martyrs and politicians. And he’s right, there’s something wrong with that. We Palestinians are normal in so many ways. And we’re so not normal in so many others.

Then Bourdain went to Gaza:

Getting in and out of Gaza from Israel is truly one of the most surreal travel experiences you could have on Earth. Over 1.5 million people live in Gaza, most of them considered refugees, meaning they are not from the place they are compelled to live now. In most cases, they are either prohibited from or unable to leave. Israel decides who comes and goes, what gets in and what stays out.

Anthony, you will be hearing from certain individuals and organizations in the coming days. They will be upset. They’ve been trying to keep this stuff a secret.

In Gaza, he met Laila Haddad, a well-known Palestinian author and activist who has written books about Gaza life and cuisine. As she explained that Gaza’s cuisine should include a lot of seafood, she noted that fishermen can rarely get prize catches as the Israeli military limits how far out they can sail. If they go too far, the Israeli navy shoots at their boats and cuts their nets.

Bourdain and Haddad then visited the Sultan family, where they were served a Palestinian staple, maqloobeh. That dish happens to be one of my specialties (Yes, ladies, I can cook.) As they were eating, the man of the house was worried about being rude. Why? The cameramen were not eating. His wife asked Bourdain to open a restaurant for her. We Palestinians are always looking for a hook-up. We need it. Her husband continued to yell, but Leila assured Anthony. “This is a normal tone of voice. He’s not upset, by the way. This is how we talk. We yell.” I can relate.

Before Bourdain left Gaza, he met and dined with one more group of men. These men, like 75% of Gaza’s population, were refugees. As he sat, laughing and eating, he told us:

Many of these guys are not too sympathetic to my country, or my ethnicity I’m guessing. But, there’s that hospitality thing. Anywhere you go in the Muslim world, it seems, no matter what, you feed your guests, you do your best to make them feel at home.

It’s true. We Palestinians are overly hospitable when people visit our homeland. Sometimes too much.

The episode ended with Natan, the owner of a restaurant right outside of Gaza in Israel. Natan’s daughter was killed by a mortar bomb in the constant struggle between groups in Gaza and Israel. Since 2008, over 1,600 Palestinians in Gaza have also been killed in this conflict.

Natan spoke of the senseless deaths on both sides. He clearly disliked settlements, and he believed it was possible for like-minded people from both sides to get together and make peace. I would agree, if just more people like Natan existed. But the people who are pointing the guns at me aren’t named Natan… They’re named Netanyahu.

By the end, Bourdain did not seem too optimistic about the prospects of peace. “One doesn’t even have to speak metaphorically because there is an actual wall… or a fence, depending on who you’re talking to.” Natan told him, “No. It is a big wall. It is ugly. It is really ugly. You can see it, it’s not far away from here.” Unfortunately, it’s not far away from anywhere.

Anthony, you will be hearing from certain individuals and organizations in the coming days. They will be upset. They’ve been trying to keep this stuff a secret.

Part of being Palestinian in America is getting really excited whenever someone tells the truth about us on American TV. Kind of depressing, right?

Anthony, in the beginning of this episode, you gave the following announcement:

By the end of this hour, I’ll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an Orientalist, socialist, a fascist, CIA agent, and worse.

I didn’t see any of that. I just saw what happens to anyone who actually interacts with Palestinians. You fell in love with us, and we fell in love with you.

The author is a Palestinian-American residing in Dearborn, Michigan. He is a comedian and graduate of the University of Michigan Law School. This post first appeared on his blog The Civil Arab.

Read more:
Palestinian ‘Speed Sisters’ navigate life and the racetrack

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Noam

      Your comments after Yotam’s statement are kind of disgusting in their generalization. He suddenly becomes “they”, and opinions you don’t know he holds are glued onto him.

      Generally this whole “we” Palestinians and “them” Israelis, how they act and what they really mean is kind of tiring. And the land and water is nobody’s. We should share stuff in two states or some federation, but peace will not come from those who think air is “theirs” because of the people they were born into. That’s very backwards nationalism, and sensible people, even if they are striving for independence, can rise above this rhetoric a little bit in 2013, don’t you think?

      Reply to Comment
      • un2here

        I for one is fed up with what is mine is mine and what is yours is also mine.

        Reply to Comment
      • Palestinian

        Arriving from Europe and Russia , expelling the indigenous population and taking over their land and properties isnt sharing if thats what you were referring to.Suddenly you become aware of pronouns that make me take permission from a Russian ex-bouncer to visit my homeland.You know whats disgusting,reading comments like yours.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >… to visit my homeland.

          Your homeland is a bit more to the south, on Arab Peninsula. The fact that your fathers had stolen the land of Palestine from indigenous population does not make it yours. Exactly as land of Egypt does not belong to Arabs who had stolen it from Copts.

          Reply to Comment
          • Palestinian

            Can you prove your claims ? I can prove that the vast majority of Jews in Palestine are immigrants , 2nd and 3rd generation Israelis.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            What claims exactly?

            That you are and Arab and your homeland is on Arab peninsula?

            Or that Arab invaders had stolen Egypt from Copts, Palestine from Jews and Syria from Assyrians?

            p.s. “2nd generation immigrant” is an oxymoron. A person can’t be born to a land and at the same time be an immigrant to the same land.

            Reply to Comment
          • Palestinian

            I am an(not and) Arab Palestinian.
            Lets start with the first claim,can you prove my homeland is in the Arabian peninsula ?

            I never said “2nd generation immigrant” .The vast majority of Jews in Palestine are either immigrants or 2nd/3rd generation Israelis.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            >I am an Arab Palestinian.

            A Palestinian Arab, to be exact. Significant difference. Former implies that a part of “Palestinian people” somehow are Arabs, while latter clarifies that some of Arabs (from Arab peninsula) happen to live in Palestine for a while.

            By the way, technically you are not Palestinian Arab now, but rather American or wherever you live.

            >Lets start with the first claim,can you prove my homeland is in the Arabian peninsula?

            Sure. Just tell me what is your family name.

            >I never said “2nd generation immigrant” .The vast majority of Jews in Palestine are either immigrants or 2nd/3rd generation Israelis.

            Ok, whatever. At any rate, Jewish immigrants to Palestine have not any less rights than Arab immigrants to Palestine, while 2nd/3rd generation Israelis are as indigenous to this land as any Arab who happens to live here.

            You see? The difference between us is that I’m only asking for a bit of fairness, while your position is 100% pure racism.

            Reply to Comment
          • Palestinian

            Not all Palestinians are Arabs , but I’m an Arab Palestinian.

            “technically you are not Palestinian Arab now”
            Israelis who have moved to the states are no longer Israelis ?

            Lets try Al Najjar family…

            What Arab immigrants to Palestine ?

            Children of Zionist infiltrators to Palestine have no more rights than deported children of foreign workers in 48 land.

            Reply to Comment
          • Sammur

            Dear TheTrespasser,

            An “Arab” in the modern sense is anyone who is a citizen of an Arabic-speaking nation. A Lebanese is an Arab, a Jordanian is an Arab, a Moroccan is an Arab, and a Saudi Arabian is an Arab. However, ethnically and culturally these people differ quite significantly. Lebanese are mostly Phoenician, Jordanian (trans Jordanians to be exact) are mostly Nabatean, and Moroccans are mostly Berber; Saudi Arabians, for the most part, are pure Arabs.

            The “real” Egyptians aren’t necessarily all Copts as you insinuate. On the contrary, most Egyptians residing in Egypt now are indigenous to the land, just as the Copts are. The Coptic community simply got introduced to Christianity by St. Mark, who actually is from Cyrene (now in modern day Libya). The Muslim Egyptians converted (or were forced to convert) for personal, political, or economic reasons, naturally, as the Muslim armies were invading and conquering the region.

            So it really is unfair to make the statement that Palestinians are “Arab” and should therefore return to the Arabian Peninsula. Just because most Palestinians are Muslim, that does not mean that you can strip off of them their cultural and ethnic identities. Palestinians are the descendants of Canaanites, Phoenicians, ancient Israelis, Jews, Samaritans, Philistines, Cretes (an island in Greece), Romans, and Arabs (just to name a few).

            Palestinians (Christians and Muslims) and Israeli Jews (especially Sephardic, Yemeni and Iraqi, and middle-eastern Jews in general) are related, very much so. I am from Nablus and I get mistaken for being Jewish wherever I go, which is expected since my family was probably at one point in time Jewish (I mean, there are still Samaritans living in Nablus, I’m sure that you already know that). Many prominent Nabulsi families have Samaritan ancestry; there’s nothing surprising about that.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Wonderful. So why are these Palestinian Arabs so violently predisposed to preventing us from returning to our homeland, even generally going so far as choosing to deny the connection that is entirely apparent in their own DNA? Shouldn’t they have been welcoming us back instead of trying to massacre us?

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Dear Sammur,

            >An “Arab” in the modern sense is anyone who is a citizen of an Arabic-speaking nation.

            Is that so?

            Basically, what you are saying is that should I move to Iraq I become an Arab.

            Or an Iraqi Arab, who moves to USA stops being an Arab.

            Nonsense, obviously.

            >A Lebanese is an Arab, a Jordanian is an Arab, a Moroccan is an Arab, and a Saudi Arabian is an Arab.

            Nope, sorry.
            There are non-Arab Lebanese and Moroccans, although their numbers are on constant decrease due to slow ongoing genocide conducted by Arabs.

            >However, ethnically and culturally these people differ quite significantly. Lebanese are mostly Phoenician, Jordanian (trans Jordanians to be exact) are mostly Nabatean, and Moroccans are mostly Berber; Saudi Arabians, for the most part, are pure Arabs.

            It might have been truth, if not for the Arabs’ tradition of taking multiple wives.

            Basically, if a town had population of 5000, of which roughly 50% were women, and was conquested by Arab army of mere 1000, it meant that hardly any of local males would be able to find a wife. In modern terms it is called genocide.

            >The “real” Egyptians aren’t necessarily all Copts as you insinuate. On the contrary, most Egyptians residing in Egypt now are indigenous to the land, just as the Copts are.

            I’m afraid that a Copt would not quite agree with that.

            >The Coptic community simply got introduced to Christianity by St. Mark

            Yeah. And simply kept their initial genetic pool

            >who actually is from Cyrene (now in modern day Libya).

            That is not known.

            >The Muslim Egyptians converted (or were forced to convert) for personal, political, or economic reasons, naturally, as the Muslim armies were invading and conquering the region.

            Converted, exterminated and deprived of females. A usual story.

            >So it really is unfair to make the statement that Palestinians are “Arab” and should therefore return to the Arabian Peninsula.

            The world is not supposed to be fair. If an Arab denies a Jew right to live in Judea, there is nothing wrong in denying that Arab right to live in Palestine.

            >Just because most Palestinians are Muslim, that does not mean that you can strip off of them their cultural and ethnic identities.

            I don’t see how I am striping an Arab of whatever identities by calling him/her an Arab.

            >Palestinians are the descendants of Canaanites, Phoenicians, ancient Israelis, Jews, Samaritans, Philistines, Cretes (an island in Greece), Romans, and Arabs (just to name a few).

            Yep. Which does not quite makes them the indigenous population, nor grants them any exquisite rights to this land.

            >Palestinians (Christians and Muslims) and Israeli Jews (especially Sephardic, Yemeni and Iraqi, and middle-eastern Jews in general) are related, very much so.

            Yeah. Descendants of Semitic tribes. So what?

            >I am from Nablus and I get mistaken for being Jewish wherever I go, which is expected since my family was probably at one point in time Jewish

            Samaritan. Samaritans are not exactly the same as Jews, although both appear to be Canaanite tribes.

            >I mean, there are still Samaritans living in Nablus, I’m sure that you already know that

            Oh, I know that. During my military service I had spent two weeks guarding Samaritan village on top of Mount Grizim. Heard quite a few stories about their beloved neighbours from Neapolis. For instance, many Samaritans had to leave their homes religion because there were not enough women – Arabs have a beautiful, ancient tradition of kidnapping and raping Samaritan girls.

            >Many prominent Nabulsi families have Samaritan ancestry; there’s nothing surprising about that.

            Care to name few such families?

            Reply to Comment
          • Sammur

            The Muslimani, Yaish, and Shakshir families.

            Source: Sean Ireton (2003). “The Samaritans – The Samaritans: Strategies for Survival of an Ethno-religious Minority in the Twenty First Century”. Anthrobase.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Fiona

      Just one more reason to love Anthony Bourdain. He is man enough to stand up to the tired rhetoric of the Israel lobby.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Palestinian

      Interesting article.Its good to see new Palestinian faces here .

      Reply to Comment
    4. Danny

      I can imagine Abe Foxman having a real plotz while watching this:

      The nerve of these anti-semites – suggesting that falafel wasn’t invented by Israel!?!?

      Next thing they’ll be saying Israel didn’t invent the internet, the cell phone and the Pentium chip (and how will we accuse other anti-semites like Stephen Hawking of hypocrisy then???)

      We must fight this anti-falafelism at the root!

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Since Arabs (Palestinian and otherwise) had invented ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, I’d suggest that first you fight their cultural deficiency and overwhelming illiteracy.

        Reply to Comment
        • Danny

          I’d rather fight Israeli cultural deficiency and overwhelming ignorance.

          Oh, and by the way – we have Arabs to thanks for things like algebra and the number zero.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            You should start with yourself than.

            You see, Arabs did not discovered (or invented, if you please) zero, nor Arabs have anything to do with algebra.

            Zero was used by Egyptians, Chinese and Indians long before Arabs learned how to write, while algebra was brought to the modern world by a Persian, as well as chemistry.

            Reply to Comment
          • Joe

            Really. We’re having an argument about the worth of Palestinians based on who invented zero.

            Fool.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            No, we are not having an argument about the worth of Palestinians based on who invented zero.

            And you are really not obliged to undersign each your post.

            Reply to Comment
    5. Richard

      Everything portrayed in the show, and everything described in the article, has already been shown on American network television. There’s absolutely no new information here, and there aren’t any secrets being kept by the minions of Zion. When people don’t care about your perspective, or disagree with you, its easy to pretend that the issue is their ignorance, not your values and arguments. CBS already told America that Bethlehem is surrounded (surrounded!) by the wall, and nobody cares, even though that’s worse than the truth. Sorry, Anthony hasn’t done anything new, there aren’t any secrets being kept by nefarious lobbies, and all of the relevant information is out there – you’re just blind to the fact that people don’t care and/or don’t like your cause. Calling them ignorant won’t solve your problem.

      Reply to Comment
    6. operafan

      well. an bit biased the article. no context. the israelies didn’t occupy the west bank and gaza before 1967. where have been and are the Palestinian leaders who preferred peace to war?. so,”i want war,but if I lose it,then I want to reset the situation to before I started it”. fine,there are consequences for wrong actions,or not?.

      Reply to Comment
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