Anthony Bourdain in IRAN
CNN’s Tasty Travelogue Offers •Childish• History Lesson
For years, CNN’s globetrotting chef, author, and consummate foodie Anthony Bourdain had been “desperately” pursuing government approval to film in Iran, so when it was announced that he would finally be traveling to the elusive destination last summer, there was anticipation all around.
Bourdain and his Parts Unknown crew featured Tehran, Iran’s bustling capital of over 8 million people, and the majestic ancient city of Isfahan in their hour length program. Apart from a freak dust storm, his visit was a pretty low key affair, mainly spent eating, talking and lounging with Iranians in their homes, in cafes or way up in the picturesque Darband mountains.
The overriding theme of his visit, Bourdain repeatedly emphasized, was the “shocking” disconnect between the negative perception of Iran and the overwhelming friendliness and hospitality of all the people he encountered. Bourdain says he found it “confusing” that people could embrace an American visitor so warmly in the direct proximity of looming murals demonizing the United States.
It needn’t be all that mystifying. Iran, as everyone should be aware by now, is a repressive dictatorship ruled by Islamic fanatics with a deep disdain for Western customs and values. Most Iranians don’t share its virulent anti-Americanism, regardless of whether or not they completely agree with U.S. policies.
Stunned by Persian hospitality: “very, very different than the Iran I expected”, says Bourdain.
Since the people of Iran are essentially captives of this authoritarian regime, it’s strange that outsiders would assume that its extravagant propaganda automatically represents the attitudes of its misfortunate citizenry.
The backstory of the dysfunctional U.S.-Iran relationship has a lot to do with why Iranians find themselves in this predicament. Hence, a little historical background is called for to help clear up all this confusion.
Prior to the show’s November 1st air date, I fully expected that Bourdain, a progressive, worldly and politically astute individual, would do a sufficient job of weaving some of this background into the piece, as he does in all his other travelogues. Had I been watching it on mute, it would have certainly appeared that way. Dr. Mossadegh’s image, after all, appears on screen after only a couple of minutes or so into the show.
Yet the actual narration that accompanies the old black and white newsreel footage was literally... childish. Instead of being voiced by Bourdain, a young child is heard describing Iran’s history in a feeble, dopey way that might be excusable for a kid—but not for one of the biggest and most influential media outlets on earth. In an abstruse fairytale rendering more suitable for a nursery school storytime session, the youngster explains:
“Once upon a time there was an ancient kingdom where they found a lot of magical black stuff under the ground. But, two other kingdoms had the key to the magical black stuff, [Churchill and FDR are shown] and when they wouldn’t share, the people of the ancient kingdom got mad.
They voted, and their leader said the magical black stuff is ours to keep. [Mossadegh is shown] But the other kingdoms were afraid of losing all the magical black stuff. So they gave money to some bad men to get rid of the leader. They put back in power another leader and they gave him money, too. [The Shah is shown]
To some he was a good king, but to others he could be very cruel. After many years the people of the kingdom got mad, this time even madder. [Khomeini is shown] So they scared the king away forever. And then things started to get really messed up...”
Then Bourdain chimes in: “OK, that’s a simplistic and incomplete way to sum up the last hundred-odd years of Iranian history. But the point is, there were a lot of issues and differing agendas leading up to the explosion of rage known as the Iranian hostage crisis.”
To truly appreciate just how insipid this segment is, watch for yourself [Password: CNN].
What is this—Sesame Street? With its glaringly false implications, CNN’s obtuse ‘kiddie’ treatment confuses more than it educates. An unknowing viewer could hardly be faulted for wrongly concluding, among other things, that America and Britain jointly owned and controlled all Iranian oil and “wouldn’t share” with Iranians. Perhaps they just thought they were being creative...but more likely, they were guided by some combination of panic and sheer negligence. The kid stuff just seems disrespectful; like they don’t take the Iranian narrative very seriously.
How hard would it have been to be a little more coherent? Nowhere are the key points even raised—no recognition of the fact that Iran had once been a democratic country, nothing about Eisenhower, the CIA or the Dulles brothers... Not even an approximate time frame is offered (when was this—the 30’s or 40’s? If not, then why are we looking at FDR?).
To not acknowledge oil nationalization, the 1953 Anglo-American supported coup, or the 26 years of U.S.-funded dictatorship in Iran would be like reviewing South African history without mentioning its Dutch/British colonial era, apartheid, or the fact that universal suffrage was not achieved until 1994.
Would CNN have neglected to identify Nelson Mandela by name, as they did during our quick glimpse of the former Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, who is only referred to as some “leader”? (Actually, Bourdain did recently feature South Africa, and Mandela and the African National Congress were brought up instantly, though he incorrectly dated the ANC’s formation to 1923 instead of 1912.).
To those who would counter that it’s just a food show—no, there’s actually more to it. Bourdain’s episodes in locations such as Vietnam, Colombia, Russia, Libya, Detroit, Cuba, Myanmar, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza were all imbued with a natural recognition of their respective socio-political/economic backgrounds and domestic turmoil, so as to make their current situations more comprehensible.
When Bourdain visited the Congo, he ably informed viewers of the 1961 CIA coup which toppled Patrice Lumumba and “helped to install this miserable bastard”, Joseph Mobutu. When he traveled to Chile, the Nixon-era 1973 CIA-backed military coup against Salvador Allende (an admitted “obsession” of Bourdain’s), followed by the murderous reign of U.S.-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet, was duly recognized within the first 30 seconds of the program, and described in detail, along with an interview with an eyewitness, for two additional minutes.
To his credit, Anthony Bourdain did comment on the devastating, “deeply, deeply felt” Iran-Iraq War, which, he said, cost hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives, a large number of whom were children. He also noted that the U.S. had fully aided Saddam Hussein, who started the eight year-long war in the first place, while Iraq used outlawed chemical weapons. “And it is worth mentioning”, added Bourdain, “whatever you think, wherever we are now, that Saddam, supported by the U.S. government and with our full knowledge, used sarin and mustard gas on hundreds of thousands of Iranians. Less known in America, known and felt by everyone in Iran.”
The most poignant part of Bourdain’s journey was his interview with resident journalists Jason Rezaian, Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post, and wife Yeganeh Salehi, a foreign correspondent for the UAE newspaper The National. Shortly afterward, both were arrested by Iranian authorities for completely mysterious reasons (Yeganeh has since been released on bail, but Rezaian’s current status is still unknown, and no charges have yet been filed).
Subsequently, Bourdain has quite eloquently publicized their disgraceful detainment in TV interviews and articles, displaying compassion and tact in this delicate situation. A perplexed Bourdain wrote in October:
“Jason and Yeganeh looked happy, too — and deeply proud of their heritage and the country they were helping to show me. They wanted the best for it, and they were great emissaries on its behalf. They calmly discussed the context for the animus between the Islamic Republic and the United States in recent decades: the British/American coup that toppled the nation’s first democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mossadegh; the installation of the Shah; the creation of the dreaded SAVAK; what that had meant to thousands and thousands of families. They stressed how deeply the country still felt the reverberations from its war with Iraq. And they came back, again and again, to the importance of Iran’s connection to the past, to the Persian Empire and to an ancient language that is still spoken today.”
This portion of their interview sounds highly enlightening, yet not a single second of it remains in CNN’s final cut of the program.
Perhaps that’s why they call it “Parts Unknown”.
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