“Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” travels to Beirut, Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN. Follow the show on Twitter and Facebook.
I briefly considered naming my daughter “Beirut.”
She was, after all, conceived within two hours of returning from my first visit there. In 2006, along with my crew, and a number of other foreign nationals, I had been taken off the beach by the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and transported by LCU to the USS Nashville, and from there to Cyprus and home.
The experience left me with a deep love and appreciation for the U.S. Navy and Marines, the now-decommissioned Nashville (once referred to affectionately, I’m told, as the “Trashville”), and, of course, Beirut.
What became of Beirut’s 1960s jet-set playgrounds?
That experience changed everything for me. One day I was making television about eating and drinking. The next, I was watching the airport I’d just landed in a few days earlier being blown up across the water from my hotel window.
I came away from the experience deeply embittered, confused – and determined to make television differently than I’d done before. I didn’t know how I was going to do it – or whether my then-network was going to allow me – but the days of “happy horseshit”, the uplifting sum-up at the end of every show, the reflex inclusion of a food scene in every act, that ended right there.
The world was bigger than that. The stories more confusing, more complex, less satisfying in their resolutions. As I noted in my utterly depressing last lines of voiceover in the eventual show we put together, “in the real world, good people and bad alike are often crushed under the same terrible wheel.”
I didn’t feel an urge to turn into Dan Rather. Our Beirut experience did not give me delusions of being a journalist. I just saw that there were realities beyond what was on my plate, and those realities almost inevitably informed what was – or was not – for dinner. To ignore them now seemed monstrous.
And yet, I’d already fallen in love with Beirut. We all had. Everyone on my crew. As soon as we’d landed, headed into town, there was a reaction I can only describe as “pheromonic”: the place just smelled good. Like a place we were going to love.
You learn to trust these kinds of feelings after years on the road.
We soon met lovely people from every kind of background. We found fantastic food everywhere. A city with a proud, almost frenetic party and nightclub culture. A place where bikinis and hijabs appeared to coexist seamlessly – where all the evils, all the problems of the world could be easily found, right next to and among all the best things about being human and being alive.
This was a city where nothing made any damn sense at all – in the best possible way. A country with no president for over a year – ruled by a power sharing coalition of oligarchs and Hezbollah, neighbor problems as serious as anyone could have, history so awful and tragic that one would assume the various factions would be at each others throats for the next century.
Yet you can go to a seaside fish restaurant and see people happily eating with their families and smoking shisha, who in any other place would be shooting at each other.
It’s a beautiful city, with layers of scars the locals have ceased to even notice. It’s a place with tremendous heart. It’s a place I’ve described as the Rumsfeldian dream of what, best-case scenario, the neocon masterminds who thought up Iraq, imagined for the post-Saddam Middle East: a place Americans could wander safely, order KFC, shop at the Gap. Where dollars are accepted everywhere and nearly everybody speaks English.
That is an egregious oversimplification. But it’s also my way of telling you should go there. It defies logic. It defies expectations. It is amazing.
EVERYONE should visit.