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When I first heard people mentioning that Anthony Bourdain, who has a travel show called No Reservations, was doing a show in Saudi Arabia, I think I cringed almost instinctively. I mean, non-Muslim American white guy, going where? Eek. I expected all sorts of clichés about oppressed women (living under oppressive clothing and oppressive laws), “fanatical” Muslims (such as the kind that pray five times a day), and so on.
I have to say that upon watching the show (or what I could find of it on YouTube), I was pleasantly surprised. Danya, the woman showing Bourdain around is awesome and friendly, and their excursions include visiting street vendors, the mall, the desert, and Danya’s home, and even going scuba diving. Yes, there are some problems in defining what “essential” or “traditional” Saudi culture is, or in portraying Westernised elements of Saudi culture as “modern,” but all in all, it’s surprisingly not bad. Go check it out.
Something interesting that comes up is that Bourdain’s comments where he brings up what he sees as examples of women’s oppression are often met with nonchalant answers from Danya that casually, but very directly, challenge his assumptions and suggest alternate interpretations of certain practices. Women generally wear black not because the society likes its women to suffer in the heat, but because it’s less see-through. The separation of a men’s section and a family section in a restaurant results in segregation of men, and not of women. This isn’t to say that we have to agree with all of her interpretations, but what is relevant is that she’s able to show that there are more ways than one of understanding a culture, and that it’s possible for a woman to live there without seeing herself as oppressed or segregated.
The producer’s blog about this show is also very much worth checking out. As a woman, she writes about her experience of wearing the abaya while in Saudi. We’re trying for a bit of a moratorium on discussions of Muslim women’s clothing here at MMW, plus I’m getting really tired of it, so I won’t go too far into that part of it. It is definitely interesting though to see her perspective on it, and from the comments at the bottom, it seems that it prompted at least a few people to reconsider their assumptions about abayas. On the other hand, I am a bit concerned about the extent to which she paints Danya as “extraordinary,” since it’s possible that people could read the article and assume that, while Danya’s pretty cool, all the other women in Saudi Arabia still fit into their preconceptions about the country.
What I would have liked to see in this episode, and this is a common motif for many westerners who express surprise that the Middle East isn’t quite the scary world they expect it to be, is a bit more self-examination in terms of how he came to have the expectations he did about Saudi Arabia. (Okay, I’m totally aware that that’s asking for way more than any travel show is ever going to do, but even so…) Bourdain does a good job of admitting that he was wrong in his preconceived ideas about the country, but he could have explored this further. Why exactly did he feel that this destination was “predestined to suck,” as he says in his blog? Yes, he mentions that American news stories about Saudi Arabia contributed to the impression that he had, but every so often I just wish that the person making the “wow, look, those Muslims aren’t as scary as I thought they’d be” comments would focus more on themselves than on the Muslims they’re talking about. (It’s like when people see a Muslim woman speak and then think, wow, she was so articulate and powerful, I wouldn’t have expected that from a Muslim woman! But the focus is on her, rather than on the fact that maybe they need to re-examine why they had those expectations in the first place.) Still, I suppose his admission (several times) that he had misjudged the country before going there is still pretty important, especially for someone with a bit of a cavalier attitude, trying to make himself look like he’s going somewhere really different and scary.
Anyway, go watch the show if you haven’t already, and let me know what you think! I wasn’t able to find the whole thing, start to finish, on youtube, but you’ll get most of it if you watch this, this, this, this, and this. (There are some overlaps in there, but each clip has parts that the others don’t.)
(I will be honest here and admit that I don’t actually own a TV, had never heard of Anthony Bourdain before this episode, and don’t have a clue what his show is normally like. I’m basing my impressions only on what I saw in this episode, and I can’t comment on any other shows about other places that he has visited. I’d be interested to hear if he had similar experiences in other countries though!)