We are from God and to Him we return. That’s what we say as Muslims when people die. It helps ease the pain of loss to realize this world is fleeting, and that feeling of loss is magnified today as the world mourns the death of Anthony Bourdain.
I met Tony in 2008 when he came to film an episode of No Reservations, his rollicking travel and culinary show, in my home country of Saudi Arabia. He was very different from his TV persona—still funny, but also sweet, kind and shy. I remember being told he was intimidated by me — I’m still not sure why — and when I asked him about it he looked down shyly and confirmed he was. This was not the cocky man portrayed on TV.
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The episode he filmed was part of a Fan-atic competition that I won, and I invited him to come to Jeddah to show him around. His daughter, Ariane, was recently born and he was very reluctant to leave New York because he didn’t want to miss a single moment with her. He did decide to come in the end, and my family and friends greeted him with open arms.
Saudi Arabia did not have the best reputation at the time. The only news was about terrorism, or the fact that women couldn’t drive, or some other one-dimensional story that didn’t accurately represent the country. As a filmmaker myself, storytelling is very important to me and I was excited to be able to show Tony a more authentic view of my home.
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I spent about a week with Tony showing him around Jeddah. We laughed a lot, and of course ate. He was always very open and warm. He shared experiences about his life, his travels, his addiction, his family. We even talked about our pets, while driving to locations or waiting to set up the cameras.
I think, despite all his travels, in some ways he was still surprised by things here. When my brother-in-law made a joke about one of the dishes being camel toe soup, Tony looked around not sure what to make of it until he saw me roll my eyes and everyone started laughing. He experienced everything with an open mind and an open heart and relayed it very beautifully in the episode.
I remember him telling me not to read the comments when the show aired; he felt people are cruel in general when commenting from behind the safety of a computer screen. But when the episode went live, the response was overwhelming positive. People from all over the world would recognize me because of my voice, my laugh, the way I used my hand to eat. I was approached frequently when traveling and thanked by people for showing a side of Saudi Arabia most don’t get to see. To this day, 10 years later, I’m still told by people I meet that the only good thing they see online about Saudi Arabia is the episode of No Reservations. I was informed that it was the highest viewed episode of any show on the Travel Channel at the time. People were hungry for real stories from Saudi Arabia, about real Saudis, and Tony finally gave us a voice.
Saudis aren’t the only people to whom Tony gave a platform. Throughout his 142 episodes of No Reservations, and 89 episodes of Parts Unknown, Tony approached storytelling with boundless empathy and an appreciation for humanity that is rare in our increasingly divided world. People from different countries and backgrounds—some of whom have been fundamentally at odds for centuries—shared a mutual respect for his honest portrayals of the cultures they loved. He was able to toggle between reverence and irreverence in a single sentence; he was an expert at identifying what was important, and what was not. He knew food was about telling a story, and he let the food, and the people who made it, speak for themselves.
I’m blessed to have had the time I did with Tony. And I’m more thankful to him than he will ever know for sharing our story with the world.
Danya Alhamrani is a Saudi-American filmmaker and a managing partner of Eggdancer Productions, an independent television production company based in Jeddah. Her recent work includes Ramadan Online, a collection of videos of people from all over the world discussing what Ramadan means to them. You can watch her No Reservations episode below.