Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Celebrity Chef in War-Torn Beirut: The State Department Was No Help To Stranded Citizens

Sherman Oaks, California

I was catching up on celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain's television programs, when his controversial Beirut episode of No Reservations underlined an unfortunate fact of expat life: The United States offers terrible services to its citizens abroad.

In July 2006, Bourdain and his small crew were in Beirut filming an episode about the city's cuisine and nightlife. Two days later, Israel attacked. Bourdain watched from his hotel balcony as the Israeli Air Force bombed the Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport, the country's principal transport hub -- and Bourdain's way home.

For the better part of a week, Bourdain had to rely on second- and third-hand information. "We call the embassy day after day and get no response. Nothing. Officially -- after days of war -- the State Department advice is to visit its Web site. Which contains nothing of use," Bourdain wrote in Salon. The best intel came from a guy who hung out by the hotel pool.

Meanwhile, other nationalities were being evacuated by their governments. The French. The Italians. The Romanians. No word came from Foggy Bottom for days, and, when instructions finally arrived, the civilian execution was poor.

"After a hideously disorganized cluster fuck at the eventual 'assembly point' -- a barely under control mob scene of fainting old people, crying babies, desperate families waving pink and white slips of paper, trying to get the attention of a few understaffed, underprepared and seemingly annoyed embassy personnel in baseball caps and casual clothes -- we are put in the charge of the sailors and Marines of the USS Nashville who've hauled ass from Jordan on short notice to undertake a mission for which they are unrehearsed and inexperienced. Yet they perform brilliantly. The moment we pass through the last checkpoint into their control, all are treated with a kindness and humanity we can scarcely believe," Bourdain wrote.

"I can't possibly say enough good things about the U.S. Marine Corps or enough bad things about the embassy and the State Department," Bourdain told The Washington Post.

Next Post: A theory on why U.S. consular services are so poor.

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Anonymous Edward Hasbrouck said...

In Salon, Bourdain says, "Frightened visitors from other Gulf states and the Lebanese -- including our local fixer -- had headed for Syria, but planes had been hitting that route out repeatedly, making the already unattractive option of camera-bearing Americans crossing into that unwelcoming country even less attractive."

Unwelcoming? Syria? From that comment, I suspect Bourdain has never been to Syria.

I was in Syria for several weeks last year, and found the people in Syria to be, in general, to be *the* most consistently, overwhelmingly, and genuinely welcoming people of *any* of the more than 50 countries I have visited -- even when I came out to them as an atheist. (Typical exchange: Shopkeeper: Where are you from? me: America. Shopkeeper: Oh, you're Americans? No, you can't pay -- take it as our gift.)

Syrian people have many grievances with the Syrian government, the US government, and the Israeli government, but I experienced no hostility towards me as a US citizen. (I agree with most of their complaints about all of those governments.) I wouoldn't want to live in Syria -- it's a police state. But even the government bureaucrats we had to deal with seemed genuinely to be trying to help, and to welcome our visit.

Well-travelled Western friends who have visited Syria consistently remark on the welcome of its people as its most outstanding feature.

12:40 AM  

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