“I am so confused. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Of all the places, of all the countries. Of all the years of traveling, it’s here, in Iran, that I am greeted most warmly by total strangers.”
This is how Anthony Bourdain begins his episode of Parts Unknown: Iran. In a way, my own family can say the same about my sister’s husband Navid and his family.
We’re so confused. Of all the people my sister could have married, of all the places, of all the countries. It’s a man from Iran that has greeted us most warmly.
And thank God it was! Navid is probably the nicest, kindest person I’ve ever met. My sister travels for work — Malaysia, Turkey, Spain, China, she goes everywhere. Well, almost everywhere. Certainly not Iran. Which is why it’s even more surprising that two people on opposite sides of the world, from countries that are supposed to be at odds, can find each other and fall in love.
As Bourdain says in his Iran episode, it’s “a big blank spot on nearly every traveler’s resume.” It’s not a place we can easily travel to. It took Bourdain five years to get a visa. Even Navid can’t go back until some things change. After all, it’s part of the infamous “axis of evil.” Even if George W. Bush’s labeling disgusted you, it still conjures a taboo kind of curiosity. Who are the people of Iran really? We hear about Iran all the time in the news. Nuclear. Revolution. Hostages. War. Evil.
As news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide was made public last week, I was immediately reminded of the impact his episode in Iran had on me and my family.
My brother-in-law Navid first heard about Bourdain’s Iran episode from a friend. Filmed in 2014, Bourdain wanted access to Iran and never gave up until he got it. “He showed Iranian people to the rest of the world. He went into their houses,” says Navid. “When Anthony Bourdain died, I saw Iranian friends posting about it online. They knew who he was and how he tried to show the culture, the families and the food.”
A “revolution baby,” Navid was born after the 1979 revolution that put the Ayatollah Khomeini in power, enacting restrictions of religion, dress and speech. Navid never saw the Iran his parents knew. The contradictions Navid feels about his home country are echoed by Bourdain’s first experience in Iran. “I don’t know that I can put it in any kind of perspective” Bourdain says in the episode. “I feel, you know, deeply conflicted. (It’s a) deeply confusing, exhilarating, heartbreaking, beautiful place.” He then adds “It’s complicated.”
And that’s how he shows it. Complicated. There’s a brief history of the politics — America’s involvement and Iran’s revolution, to put it very simply. This is met with images of people on the street greeting Bourdain with smiles and handshakes while anti-American murals and chants pop up in the background. There’s no glorifying the government or anyone who opposes it. There are no sides. “The other stuff — it’s there” Bourdain says. “The Iran we’ve read about, heard about, seen in the news. But this … this I wasn’t prepared for.”
There’s no agenda in his approach. We see the city as it is. People look at the camera. Some smile. Some laugh and dance. Some ask them to stop filming. Young men and women hang out together bowling. When I first met Navid, I was under the false impression that women weren’t allowed to drive in Iran. Navid, who has four sisters, explained that it was Saudi Arabia I was thinking of.
Bourdain explores this misconception in the show, while talking with Jason Rezaian, an Iranian correspondent for the Washington Post and his wife Yeganeh, who says women can drive and vote. Though women still have much to fight for, it’s not as restrictive as we thought. Bourdain says “You can listen to rock and rap, but you just can’t rock out too much.” Coincidentally, both Rezaian and Yeganeh were jailed after their interviews with Bourdain. “It’s complicated.” That’s for sure.Bourdain doesn’t hide from it. In this honesty, we see the beauty of real life — and the consequences of living a real life.No country is without contradictions and hypocrisy.
Later in the show, families have picnics, there’s a grand view of Tehran and they drive through ancient ruins along what was once the silk road that stretched all the way to China. Bourdain travels to Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city, names and places I didn’t know anything about. There are moments where Bourdain stands in an historic mosque, with rich blue colors and Persian architecture. Just taking it in. Iranians approach him, shake his hand. A young boy asks where he’s from. “The USA” he says. “America.” The boy smiles.
Then there’s the food, which is what this is all supposed to be about. “Food is an entryway,”Bourdain told Anderson Cooper in an interviewfor CNN. “People are often surprised to see Americans eat their food. Pleasantly surprised. They’re telling you something about themselves.” Navid and his family make the best rice I’ve ever had. They use saffron, which is supposedly worth more than gold in weight. Navid’s family are at various levels of English language comprehension and usage (and none of us Americans know Farsi). It makes sense then, that sharing a meal together is the easiest way to learn about each other. We smile and eat.
“Iranians are the descendants of ancient Persia, an empire of poetry, flowers and the highly influential culture that goes back thousands of years” Bourdain explains. “This is a land of secret recipes, passed down within families like treasured possessions.” Navid mentioned several times that Bourdain went into a family’s home, like an intimate, honored tradition, unlike our American “take-out, dine-out” culture. “He ate with a family and they had fessenjoon, a slow-cooking meal, like a stew, with pomegranates, walnuts and meat. You put it over rice. It’s made for special guests” Navid tells me. I’ve had fessenjoon with Navid’s family. It’s one of the only Farsi words I recognize.
Bourdain also tried chelow kabobs, tahdig (crispy rice), biryani (minced lamb, onion, turmeric, cinnamon, mint and saffron) and boz ghormeh, a slow-cooked lamb in yogurt, saffron and egg yolks, with sour cherry rice. During dinner with an Iranian family, one of the men says “We are not the axis of evil. No, just normal evil like everybody else.” This is followed by laughter.
Navid’s favorite moment was when Bourdain visited a bakery. “In this part of the world,” Bourdain said, “whatever your background, bread is a vital, essential, fundamental and deeply respected staple.” Navid remembers going to the bakery with his mother, who passed away in Iran in 2016 before she was able to come to the U.S. and see him again. “I remember going to get bread with her in the mornings. I remember it well,” he says.
Everyone in my family watched this episode. It was fitting the show is called Parts Unknown. Navid could show us his culture and his people in the most realistic depiction we had seen in any other form of media. Even when Navid received U.S. citizenship, a TV in the lobby of the Homeland Security office was showing CNN and the U.S. “tensions” with Iran.
Bourdain ends the episode by hanging out with a bunch of young Iranians on top of a hill overlooking Tehran as they show off their classic American cars and drink non-alcoholic beer from cans (alcohol is prohibited). It looks like a scene out of some American teen coming-of-age movie. Bourdain orders Iranian pizza - which they eat with ketchup. Who knew? “Oh yes,” Navid says. “We love ketchup!”
“So far, Iran does not look, does not feel the way I’d expected. Neither East nor West but always somewhere in the middle,” Bourdain says. Navid and my sister Kelly now have a baby daughter. Hopefully, in her lifetime she will be able to visit Iran, but until then, Anthony Bourdain gifted her with a little glimpse into her father’s culture, the land and people who shaped him. A place that is part of her blood and heritage and worldview.
Thank you,Anthony Bourdain, from my Iranian and American family.
Has Anthony Bourdain inspired you? Do you have a favorite Parts Unknown episode?