Saturday, April 23, 2011

Strengthening a Society's Identity

I was deeply moved by a recent episode of the Travel Channel's No Reservations. Chef Anthony Bourdain's show focuses on the food of a city or country and embraces it with the culture of the area. It is always an entertaining show, but sometimes it moves beyond entertainment into an important realm that highlights history and tradition in a way that gives viewers a new perspective on cultural identity.

Chef Bourdain's visit to Cambodia delved into the importance of preserving heritage to support communities and cultures. The last third of the episode included interviews with women who recalled their past and tried to reconcile it with their country's future. This segment that includes an interview with Sochua Mu is one of the most poignant pieces of the  show. It gives a brief history and moves into a frightening, but poetic and compassionate narrative describing Pol Pot's take over of the country in the 1970s and his attempt to establish his idea of a "Utopia.". Bourdain narrates, "First the past would have to be erased. 2,000 years of Cambodian culture and history came to an immediate end. It was declared year zero and everything that came before it was to be erased from existence. Literally overnight entire cities were emptied. Their inhabitants marched off to the countryside... Money was abolished, books were burned, families purposelessly broken apart...In the blink of an eye, an entire way of life over." The "No Reservations" team uses archival images to illustrate the story, emphasizing Bourdain's words and adding to their shocking realism.

A despot's attempt to control a populace by destroying cultural identity is not a unique ploy. It's been done over and over again in history. Archives such as those held by the National Archives of Cambodia preserve the legacy of destruction and help a group of people trying to heal. The International Council on Archives runs a working group to  share vital information about ways to protect archives of terror. The WITNESS blog has a special section for archiving human rights. Their very visible and obvious attempts to preserve stories that reveal injustices to humanity are bolstered by the work of people like Bourdain.

Bourdain's abilities to understand the role of tragedy in reshaping identity and to transfer his understanding in an entertaining way is invaluable. Bourdain reminds us that our heritage - our food, our buildings, our stories - are a continuing thread through generations. Interrupted by events beyond our control, our lives press on as we hold on to memories and traditions. We survive and fight to pass knowledge and values to descendants. Our archives stand as testimony to humanity's strength to continue. Those using archives to reveal truth about history and those who highlight a society's ability to withstand adversity or terror, serve to aid the resurgence of a populace's cultural identity.

Kudos to "No Reservations" for a job well-done.

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