I'd Rather Be Anthony Bourdain

Years ago when I sat in the cubicle of my mind-numbing job and I fantasized about whose job I would like, who I would like to emulate - my thoughts would veer towards the extremely respectable, very erudite Fareed Zakaria. I thought I would take great world events and analyze them for the public, providing profound insight and knowledge. But now years later, a little more weary, tempered by life and after tonight, I have no doubt - I would rather be Anthony Bourdain.
I have literally just returned from seeing his show in Los Angeles - part of his "No Reservations" 2010 tour and I think I laughed more and harder than I have at any comedy show. How did the guy become so witty? A regular viewer of his No Reservations show on the Travel channel and having read a few of his books - I had assumed that much of his witty repartee came from great ideas and careful editing. But no! He writes exactly as he speaks. After an hour of hilarious commentary that started with filleting the majority of stars on the Food Network, to his time on Top Chef, to his concerns about this nation's food supplies to lessons on how to travel, the second half of the evening was spent on Q&A. Granted none of the questions were too provocative - he nevertheless answered each with tremendous animation, vivid descriptions and that dry sarcasm that his fans have come to crave and expect.

He started the evening sharing his ceasefire with Rachel Ray. He then continued with his most horrifying life experience yet - a run in with Andrew Cuomo, NY State Attorney General and his girlfriend, Sandra Lee - another celebrity on the Food Network who he claims "does to food what Hitler did to Poland" with her show Semi-Homemade. He pays his respects to Mario Batali and Emeril Lagasse; throws a few gentle jabs at Bobby Flay, who after all, he argues, is still a real chef and acknowledges the fine cooking skills of Giada de Laurentiis (and her unusually large head) and Ina Garten (and her uncomfortable obsession with Jeffrey, her husband). He also talked about how he preferred Iron Chef Japan to Iron Chef America due to the lackluster judges. You have superior chefs doing incredible work and then you have "mind douche Cris Angel as a judge!"

What I appreciated most about his talk however, were his comments on travel and on how to travel. "If you are lucky enough to travel, make the most of it." Don't be wasting your time in a Starbucks or at Planet Hollywood. "Have an adventure. Have a story to tell.... Don't worry about dirt. Eat like the locals eat." And follow local customs as best you can. That comment was followed with how much he dreaded Russia. There he said, we have to do a lot of "professional drinking...and we're not alcoholics." The day starts with 3 shots of vodka for breakfast, and ends with 14 to 17 shots for dinner. Every day. It's not about whether you will vomit, its when.

Food is as personal a form of expression and communication as it gets, Bourdain continues, and when you travel and if you are offered something that might rub uncomfortably, even harshly against your personal sensibilities and principles - being polite trumps everything. He likens the experience to what he calls "Grandma's Rule." You may go to grandma's house for Thanksgiving, and the food may be terrible but you will eat it all and ask for seconds and thank her profusely in the end - because it is the right and decent thing to do. Cooking, he said, is about control. Eating is about total submission.

During the Q&A when he was questioned about his life choices he said, "I'm having a really good time. I don't have any regrets. Life has been really good.... This celebrity chef thing is sweet." His comments reminded me of a interview I did with writer Pico Iyer who said, if he won the lottery today, tomorrow, he would still wake up and do exactly what he has done everyday which is sit at his desk and write. I have no idea how much money either of these people have in the bank but as far as I am concerned they are some of the richest people I know.

Some final thoughts based on questions asked Bourdain:
  • The only airline whose food he will eat: Singapore Airlines
  • If he was sentenced to a penal code where he could only eat one kind of food for the rest of his life: It would be Japanese
  • Four places we must visit: San Sebastian in Spain; Bahia in Brazil; Anywhere in Vietnam; Columbia.
  • How to get the best information on where to eat locally: read local bloggers; drink with strangers; visit the early morning markets.


Sex and No City

It's been about two weeks since Sex and the City 2 premiered. Despite my initial excitement and anticipation about its release, being a big fan of the series and the first movie, the barrage of dismal reviews made me rather hesitant to cough up my $10 to see the movie in the theater. (Hey, it is a down economy). My curiosity however, eventually got the better of me. I had read a few reviews on the orientalist portrayal of Arabs, but given that I research and write a fair bit on the United Arab Emirates and Arab architecture and culture, I wanted to see for myself how Sex and the City, the series that made us fall in love with New York, depicted Abu Dhabi the city, the people and culture.

Yes, yes, yes, the movie is chalked full of orientalist images. I wonder if Michael Patrick King who wrote the script even visited any Gulf countries in doing his research for the film or did he merely reference old Hollywood movies in all their orientalist splendor. There were plenty of references to magic carpets, camels (which are damn hard to find in Abu Dhabi), crazy oppressive Arab men, oppressed Arab women, kitschy 'Arabic' music...and so on. But none of those portrayals really bothered me because everyone in this movie was a mono-dimensional stereotype. The four women, the main stars of the show, who originally for all their occasional shallowness and materialism were generally strong independent women whose love and support of each other, and brutal honesty made the show groundbreaking and a proponent of feminism, in this movie have become pathetic whiny caricatures of women themselves. (Such a shame! As a woman, their portrayal made me shift uncomfortably in my seat). Not only were they poor reflections of women, they also epitomized the ugly American. The ignorant traveler, who rudely disregards local customs and culture and superimposes their own.
No, what really bothered me was the depiction of Abu Dhabi. Perhaps that is the architect in me speaking. I knew from the start that the movie was actually filmed in Morocco and not Abu Dhabi or Dubai as the film makers had initially wished. The script offended the leaders of both emirates and their request was denied. So filming was moved to Morocco - although they still continued with the premise that four friends were living in the lap of luxury in Abu Dhabi. I wondered why King didn't just rewrite the script to be set in Marrakesh given that is where the Amanjena Hotel and Djemaa El Fna, where they filmed the hotel suite and souk scenes respectively are located. It would have made much more sense. But apparently, even though they allowed filming within the country, Moroccan officials also did not want their country mentioned in the film. So instead of creating a some random Arab Gulf city, or moving the movie elsewhere to a city that might be more accommodating - they stuck with Abu Dhabi - but made absolutely no attempt to liken their portrayal of the city to the actual one. Despite the fact that two thirds of the movie is set in this Emirate.

Abu Dhabi is a very young city. The medieval souk they had Miranda and Carrie wander through does not exist in Abu Dhabi. If they were really in Abu Dhabi and they wanted to go shopping they would have gone to a mall. And when they were inside the mall they would have discovered that the majority (over 80%) of Abu Dhabi's population is made up of expatriates. In these young Emirate city-states, you are really hard pressed to find yourself ever surrounded by a huge group of Arab men. If they did venture to the few souks in Abu Dhabi, they would have realized that the structures are a few decades old (if that) and not as ancient and historic as the Djemma El Fna, Marrakesh's main square, where they filmed. Real icons of Abu Dhabi skyline like the newly completed F1 Race track were also obviously missing from the movie as was the Emirates Palace Hotel (where the four friends are supposedly staying).

But why does Abu Dhabi's disingenuous portrayal bother me so much? After all it's Hollywood and it's all make believe. Well, because the series and the movies were and are called Sex and the City. The city for the most part has been New York City. The fifth character of the show. Part of the allure of the show has been how they depicted the glamor, the grit, the rich and diverse character and offerings of New York City. Living in New York when the series was airing, I would tune in - in large part to see the locations they went, the restaurants and bars they frequented. Even when Carrie moved to Paris temporarily in the final season, they visually captured the the grandeur and moods of Paris beautifully. It made me want to hop on a plane and go there.

Abu Dhabi is not merely a blip in this movie, it is the setting for the majority of this two and a half hour long movie. If you are going to insist to set the story in a real city, be honest about its depiction. Or at least try to. Instead Abu Dhabi, like much else in the movie, became a parody - and the movie and the brand are the lesser for it.
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