Bourdain Releases His Inner Wolf in Libya

By Karen

Anthony Bourdain is clearly feeling CNN’s once-considerable “weight” on Parts Unknown. Who knows? Maybe he’s what the foundering network needs to stop being almost as big a joke as Fox “News.”

As Tony navigated through Libya, I felt like I was watching him grab the next rung up in his career  — and I was cheering for him all the way.

With each new Parts episode, Bourdain’s confidence grows almost visibly as he tries new ways to expand beyond food. He’s seeking out people involved in historic upheavals, and expats who love and live in danger zones. Then he lets them take center stage to talk about life and politics — instead of food — while Bourdain mostly listens and learns.

His narrations fill in just enough history to make it all make sense for viewers.

As he drove through Gaddafi’s destroyed, deserted compound and scrambled alone through the rubble of the dictator’s palace, I thought how, if he were still on Travel Channel, that probably would have been a scene of him lunching in Tripoli at some trendy new drive-through called Muammar’s.

I was the first blogger to follow him closely “way back when,” before Eater started hanging on his every word (e.g., their “Quotable Bourdain”), so I’ve seen him rise and begin to descend once, in spite of all the award nominations that started rolling in for No Reservations. It’s truly awesome to see him ascend again at CNN.

To foreign audiences, he must serve as the antidote to the cliché of heedless Ugly Americans who spew like mold spores from air-conditioned tour buses and cruise ships everywhere, often ignorant about where they are, and interested in nothing beyond a perfunctory glance at how “the other half” lives and cheap souvenirs.

When Bourdain was in Libya, the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was still fairly fresh, and warnings were being issued about Westerners’ safety., which must have been giving him flashbacks to Beirut. As I watched Tony travel to Mizrata, I hoped to God I never awaken to news that he’s injured, missing — or worse — in some godforsaken hellhole.

But like his predecessor, the world-renowned (now largely forgotten) English writer, Somerset Maugham, Bourdain is compelled to travel to exotic places and collect stories from ordinary people, digest them without judging, then spin them into something fascinating for the rest of us.

Unlike much of Maugham’s work, Bourdain’s dominant genre is nonfiction, which takes more courage to write.

Instead of closing the Libya episode with another relatively easy meal scene, Bourdain trekked to the ancient Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, where he noted he was the only foreigner because the country’s never-ending strife has killed tourism, and that someone had “chipped off all the dicks” from the statues.

Would Samantha Brown ever share such a tidbit? I think not. But that’s just the sort of detail we expect from Bourdain.

Then, in the show’s most shocking moment, he joined a troop of Libyan Boy Scouts on a field trip, recited the pledge from memory, and revealed he was once a scout.

Anthony Bourdain — BOY SCOUT?

That notion was even wilder than the beard he sprouted there, “going Blitzer,” the reason for which was never explained.

I’m really liking this more-than-a-foodie Tony. I think he’s on track to earn that personal Emmy that’s been eluding him.

17 Responses to Bourdain Releases His Inner Wolf in Libya

  1. chinagirl says:

    Good to see you back. Wow, are watching the same show? Not liking the new show, find him even more full of himself than in NR. Very self indulgent Libya show, Samantha Brown would do the same but with more class. Shock value over for AB grow up, an Emmy OMG hope not.

  2. catsworking says:

    Chinagirl, I was pretty burned out on No Res because all he ever seemed to do was eat. But as he’s getting further into Parts Unknown, he’s definitely going for a broader context.

    I had no interest in Libya whatsoever and wouldn’t have watched except for him, but I was fascinated in spite of myself. I think the way he’s behaving now indicates he IS “growing up.”

    But I guess if you watch the show filtering everything through a “he’s an asshole” mindset, he’s going to look like an asshole.

    I think his writing for his shows is often Emmy-quality. He’s got the gift.

    I haven’t watched Samantha Brown in ages (does she even still have a show? You never see any ad with a woman in it on Travel Channel) and, although I liked her personally, she seemed kind of empty-headed. But in some of the last shows I watched, she was growing into the job and losing the “Oh, boy, golly gee, this is wonderful!” attitude toward everything.

  3. Imabear says:

    I agree. I know that food is what made Tony famous, but he’s so intelligent and curious – he’s just so much more than food. I’ve been frustrated in the past that he had to have such a narrow focus – glad he’s finally able to break out of the mold.


  5. Trisha says:

    “Wow, are watching the same show? Not liking the new show, find him even more full of himself than in NR.”

    I can actually agree with both your posts bc while I find AB to be assholish at times, I also love his writing and his past/current travel show. I loved Tangier epi so much I watched it twice – it’s beautifully shot, which I realize has far less to do with AB (unless he’s suddenly a cinematographer) than the ZPZ folks, but still it’s really interesting TV. I also hate when he focuses most of an epi on food, particularly in people’s homes. But at the same time if it’s a place I want to go, like Morocco, I do want to see SOME food so I see what to expect when I go there (lots of the Tangier food looked amazing). Libya – who cares; I’m never going there, so I was glad food took a back seat.

    On the other hand, watching Libya I kept wondering does he ever get scared? He’s passing through very dangerous terrirory with an assault weapon under his feet at night. I felt like he was having this macho moment likening himself to some sort of Ted Nugent character – look at how tough I am – and that’s annoying. We can’t really compare his show to Sam Brown – it’s like milktoast vs blood sausage. Her show was the TV version of a Fodor’s guide. It was sometimes helpful in terms of where to stay/what to see, but it was very light/safe cruise ship passengers kinda thing. His is about the grit and guts of a location. And yes, ABs shows are all about him and his worldview (he didn’t care about the pyramids so he didn’t shoot there) while Sam’s is about helping the viewer.

    My key takeaway from Libya – It’s interesting that these Muslim countries that continue to treat women the way we treated African Americans pre-1960s want so much of America – including our KFC and ‘freedom,’ yet they cant even allow a female doctor to move from the segregated ‘kiddie table’. They just dont get that they will never know anything close to real freedom while allowing religion to dictate social practice/culture, including gender apartheid.

    I went to Egypt with a male friend and remember a little boy trying to sell us on a carriage ride, and telling me, ‘Don’t be bad, if the man says you go, you go!’. The bigotry is ingrained from birth and women suffer horribly for it. It disgusts me, and I don’t think it gets as much attention/outrage as racial apartheid, sadly. Glad Tony at least acknowledged that the west is more ‘enlightened’ on this. To say the least!

    AB a Boy Scout? Shocking. I can picture him gutting snakes in the woods and trying to make everyone taste it lol.

  6. catsworking says:

    Trisha, I’m going to be spending a little time in Lisbon this fall, and just rewatched No Res in Lisbon to see what he ate so I’d have some idea what to try.

    In the Libya episode, my turnoff moment was watching a bunch of men eat sauced pasta with their hands. I’m sorry, eating a messy meal (or yogurt, as he’s done before) with your fingers when utensils are readily available is just dumb. One enlightened guy (and maybe Bourdain) used a spoon.

    I can only imagine Bourdain has brown-stain moments in some of these countries. Sure, he’s got his posse everywhere he goes, but what are a few guys with cameras going to do if armed troops decide to have some fun?

    I wonder what Ottavia thinks when she watches the shows and sees what he got himself into. Must make shooting The Taste in a TV studio look a lot more appealing, bad as it was. At least she knows he’s coming home.

    The way women are treated in some countries is so beyond outrageous, we need a new word for it. But until the women themselves get together and revolt, there’s not much the rest of the world can do to change things. And as long as the men have the upper hand without challenge, they will keep it.

  7. MorganLF says:

    I haven’t seen Libya but saw Tangiers…it’s pure Tony and well written as always. I rather liked the comment the old dowager made about Burroughs writing through drugs and (I’m paraphrasing ) his comment haven’t we all?

    Tony as a Boy Scout? What so weird about that ? We grew up within miles and at the same time. I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout, it was heavily promoted in the NJ school system and the cool uniforms!

    As for Morroco keep it, it was filthy and horrible with grimy tourist opportunist every where, or so I was told by my friends who took the day trip there from Marbella. I chose to spend that day lounging poolside with a pitcher of Sangrias and few cute tennis instuctors. No regrets.

  8. catsworking says:

    Morgan, do you really see Bourdain as the Scout type? Or you, for that matter? (I guess I can’t because I picture a boy scout body with Bourdain’s current head pasted on.)

    I missed out on scouting for several reasons: 1) We kept moving so I would have had to keep joining different troops, 2) My parents were totally not into ferrying me around anywhere after school to the point that I was afraid to even ask them for a ride, and 3) I was very shy (thanks to all the moving and always being the “new kid”) and the thought of going door to door selling cookies petrified me.

  9. Trisha says:

    “my turnoff moment was watching a bunch of men eat sauced pasta with their hands”

    Me too! It’s so gross. But when the rest of your culture is in the stone age, it somehow fits that you’d eat like a caveman.

    Morgan I’m not surprised that Tangier is filthy – it looked it, but I still think there’s a lot to enjoy and see elsewhere in Morocco. Personally I think new orleans is filthy – the roaches have their own bike lane, but people still love it. It’s a matter of how much you can handle. A friend recently went to St. Martin on my recommendation and I was shocked and dismayed that her main takeaway was ‘it’s ghetto’. I pictured AB cringing and going off on her for being ignorant enough to compare St. Martin to Hawaii (yes she actually did this). She also asked why she couldn’t expect St. M to be the same as Aruba when ‘they’re both Dutch’). Then she whined about the lack of infrastructure and bad roads. Duh.

    NY and Kansas are both US, so lets just assume they’re identical. Ridic. You go to certain places like the Carib knowing there is 3rd-world level crap you must deal with and you enjoy it anyway or, as you’ve said Morgan, no thanks that’s not for me and you don’t go. True, AB would prob go off on you for being ‘incurious’ but at least you know what you will/won’t like. No excuse for not doing research. That’s one reason I like AB’s shows – it def shows you what to expect. Like in Egypt, I was prepared for the insanely show traffic thanks to AB’s show. Parts of Egypt were filthy and we were def bombarded by touts, but I still enjoyed some of it.

    PS I think AB looks better w/ the scruf. I say keep it. Did anyone else notice his stomach is so large and disproportionate to the rest of him that he looks pregnant?! AB doesn’t seem like Scout material to me bc he is about bucking authority and brags that he was a degenerate most of his life – the very antithesis of scouting.

  10. Trisha says:

    Forgot to add Karen I loved Lisbon, went 5 yrs ago so if you have any questions…My fave thing was doing the trolley ride at dusk so you see the city day to night. It was barely narrow enough to make it through those windy streets, which I loved. Guide books will tell you to take the public trolley, which I also did, but this is one instance where the tourist one is way more fun, unless you enjoy trying to see out a window with someone’s armpit in your face. Those things get more crowded than NYC subways. Lisbon is def a place with some grit to it – some streets are ugly and grafitti’d but overall I thought it was awesome.

  11. catsworking says:

    Trisha, oddly enough, my trip this falls includes Lisbon AND St. Maarten (I usually stick to the Dutch side).

    I’ve already got a Lisbon guidebook and a Portuguese phrasebook, and downloaded basic Portuguese lessons onto my iPad, which I’ve been working on. I want to be able to say the basics (hello, goodbye, please, thank you, where is ___, and I don’t speak Portuguese), just in case.

    When I went to St. Maarten the first time, it WAS grubby and kind of nasty. But that was back in 1988. Since then, I’ve been back many times, and every time it gets nicer (more developed). I haven’t been in a few years, but it was like mini-St. Thomas the last time I saw it.

    As I figure out more of what I want to do with my limited time in Lisbon before I catch the ship, I’ll keep in mind that you know it.

    PS: I HATED the beard on Bourdain. If he’d had one when I first saw him, I never would have given him a second look. YUCK!

  12. Trisha says:

    I first saw St. M in the early 2000s (I’ve been 3x, don’t recall exactly what years). It’s never going to be Florida, but to go there expecting Aruba or Hawaii is just plain ignorant IMO. I think what irked me most is my friend acted like I was the weirdo for liking it. I know AB loves it and has been countless times.

    I tend to like scruff on men – but only to look at. It’s really not good for anything else lol. Since I won’t ever be kissing AB (ew, those teeth!), I can enjoy the aesthetics.

    So I’m going to Peru this fall – Machu Picchu, alone with a small group of strangers – I’m a tad apprehensive but I figure screw it life is short. It’s not like it’s Calcutta. I wonder if the Peru episode of Parts will air before I leave.

  13. chinagirl says:

    Agree, hate the beard, he actually looked like he didn’t shower for a week. Yuck!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. catsworking says:

    Oh wow, Machu Picchu. That sounds like a wonderful trip. The closest I’ve gotten to any ruins in South America was Tulum in Mexico. The day I was there the place was crawling with busloads of tourists, so it was hard to get a sense of the place. But it’s where I saw my first iguanas running wild, and the mosquitos were as big as bats.

  15. Trisha says:

    I’m going in the shoulder season just before rainy season, when kids are back in school, so hopefully it won’t be super swarming. I’ve never been to Mexico lol, which is dumb considering my risk of water borne/food borne illness was just as high in Cairo.

    I also am dying to see Easter Island, Galapagos and Santiago – but taking any of those on this trip seemed too exhausting. Last year my friend and I went to Vienna, and then stayed in 3 dif parts of Croatia, so 4 hotels in 11 nights. But that was a more relaxed trip. Incidentally I was extremely disappointed with Tony’s Croatia epi – so much beauty, islands and great architecture, and he spends the whole show on a boat cruising by nothing in particular, eating. grrr

  16. catsworking says:

    I can vouch for the water-borne illnesses in Mexico. On one trip, where I thought I was being so careful, I ate lunch in a very popular restaurant in Cozumel that stated on the menu they didn’t cook the food in the local water. I drank a beer from the bottle, but then stupidly ate some of the appetizer, which was raw peeled potatoes that must have been rinsed in water.

    By the next morning, I was in agony with diarrhea. I learned my lesson. Always pack Imodium.

  17. chinagirl says:

    I too had the same thing happen to me in Mexico. Thought I was smart and drank coke but asked for ICE, duh what’s ice made from!!!

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