Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World

Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World

by Suzy Hansen


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Winner of the Overseas Press Club of America's Cornelius Ryan AwardFinalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction

New York Times Book Review
Notable BookNamed a Best Book of the Year by New York Magazine and The Progressive

"A deeply honest and brave portrait of of an individual sensibility reckoning with her country's violent role in the world."
Hisham Matar, The New York Times Book Review

In the wake of the September 11 attacks and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Suzy Hansen, who grew up in an insular conservative town in New Jersey, was enjoying early success as a journalist for a high-profile New York newspaper. Increasingly, though, the disconnect between the chaos of world events and the response at home took on pressing urgency for her. Seeking to understand the Muslim world that had been reduced to scaremongering headlines, she moved to Istanbul.

Hansen arrived in Istanbul with romantic ideas about a mythical city perched between East and West, and with a naïve sense of the Islamic world beyond. Over the course of her many years of living in Turkey and traveling in Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Iran, she learned a great deal about these countries and their cultures and histories and politics. But the greatest, most unsettling surprise would be what she learned about her own country—and herself, an American abroad in the era of American decline. It would take leaving her home to discover what she came to think of as the two Americas: the country and its people, and the experience of American power around the world. She came to understand that anti-Americanism is not a violent pathology. It is, Hansen writes, “a broken heart . . . A one-hundred-year-old relationship.”

Blending memoir, journalism, and history, and deeply attuned to the voices of those she met on her travels, Notes on a Foreign Country is a moving reflection on America’s place in the world. It is a powerful journey of self-discovery and revelation—a profound reckoning with what it means to be American in a moment of grave national and global turmoil.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374537838
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 08/14/2018
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 288,767
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Suzy Hansen is contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and has written for many other publications. In 2007, she was awarded a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs to do research in Turkey. She currently lives in Istanbul. Notes on a Foreign Country is her first book.

Read an Excerpt



Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own tiny little happiness and live safely within it.


OVER TIME I CAME TO REGARD the view of Istanbul from an airplane with a sense of claustrophobia. The red-roofed buildings sprawled across the entire visible landscape, as if created with digital magic for a sci-fi film. It was so incomprehensibly enormous, a planet city. I would search with rising panic for where this endless concrete would finally be broken by the natural earth: the Black Sea, the Marmara, the elegantly slithering Bosphorus, a patch of forest with its tree heads bowed against the siege. Istanbul was bigger than the country, as Turks liked to say; it ate everythingin its path, and over time its appetite would grow monstrous. But that first day in 2007, I looked down at Istanbul with nothing but admiration, the gentle surprise of the Western tourist who hadn't suspected the world had gone on without her. From my seat, the tankers waiting to enter the Bosphorus strait looked as if they were waiting to be admitted to the center of the world.

The Istanbul airport was modern and efficient, European, and what struck me first was how foreign it did not feel, at least not in the way I expected, which was to somehow be older looking than the decrepit airport in New York I had just left. The metal walls gleamed, porters stood at the ready, there was a Starbucks. Sliding doors beyond the luggage carousels opened like a curtain to a stage where an audience of expectant faces, mostly men with dark facial hair, lunged forward, eager to snatch their waddling grandmothers and lead them safely from the crowds. The room felt almost hushed, an obedience to order that I didn't yet understand. It was the airport of a stable country.

My sleek taxi swept past buildings whose architectural style resembled some strange combination of Florida housing developments and European suburbs, shopping malls as familiar as those I frequented in New Jersey. I never had fantasies about an exotic Orient, but I had not expected globalization to have seeped like heavy liquid into every corner of the earth. The roads were immaculate, tulips lined the drive, and everywhere billboards proclaimed hopeful new construction as if in some 1950s American film reel: the next promised land! As the car merged off the highway, I glimpsed the Sea of Marmara, glinting around those huge shipping tankers. The road then curved around the edge of the old city peninsula, ahead of which I finally saw the miraculous geography of greater Istanbul — three separate pieces of multicolored cityscape emerging from the middle of a bright blue sea. A storybook stone tower stood above a huddle of buildings cascading down a hill to the Bosphorus, which had a delicately webbed bridge spun over it, leading to — Asia? The closeness of the two continents seemed improbable, hopeful, as if the world was not so big and estranged after all; old white ferries scuttled back and forth like beetles dutifully carrying messages between the two lands. Seagulls cawed overhead — to me, the soundtrack of my Atlantic Ocean imposed on an Asian metropolis — and swooped down on tiny rowboats pegged to the shore. I could not believe how beautiful it all was, how it was exactly what I had wished for.

The apartment I eventually moved into was more than a hundred years old and had no heat and broken windows, but it was located in what I had imagined an Istanbul neighborhood would be: decaying but beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings and narrow planked stone streets, men loitering in doorways and smoking. Galata was on the European side of the city, once populated by Jews and Armenians and Greeks and now home to squatting Kurdish families and foreigners, its grandeur corroded and gritty. In my apartment, the shower sprayed straight into the bathroom, the kitchen was covered in dust, and the lobby was terrifyingly dark, but from the small balcony I could see the Hagia Sophia framed perfectly between two buildings, so I thought I was the luckiest person in the world. My new home was called the Sükran Apartmani, or the Gratitude Apartments.

I knew only one person in the city, an American woman who was writing a book about Armenian-Turkish relations. After I unloaded my luggage, I dazedly followed her to meet a Kurdish PhD student named Caner so we could eat künefe in a shop that sold only künefe. Istanbul, in some heavenly seeming economic phase between the old world and early capitalism, still had shops that only did one thing: sell eggs, bake simit (the Turkish bagel), or make künefe, a syrupy dessert Turks felt no guilt making with both melted butter and cheese. Sometimes these shops were nothing but an oven and a couple of tables on a concrete floor, but their employees stood around staring at their customers vigilantly, delivered their desserts with the pride and confidence of an artist. Turkish hospitality was not obsequious; to the contrary, they were the ones in control. It had the curious effect of making you feel beholden to them even as they catered to you, the illusion of a relationship formed. These daily interactions went a long way, and for a long time, toward allowing me to pretend I was not lonely.

Caner and my American friend were continuing some conversation they had begun days before, and I watched Caner with the carefulness of a scientist. He was soft-spoken and serious, and he could roll his cigarettes gracefully without his eyes leaving your face. Earlier that day, the military had raided a "liberal" magazine called Nokta, which he told us about in asolemn tone, because it published some classified documents concerning the possible plotting of a military coup. A military coup was too fantastical a concept for me to take seriously; instead, I wondered when he said the magazine was "liberal" whether he had actually meant "radical." I still had the reflex that the police only went after bad people. Caner said that the military wasn't able to finish photocopying everything in one day, so they decided to complete their raid later. He seemed angry. I realized, with no small measure of surprise, that if you were a leftist in Turkey, your enemy was the military, not Islam.

After a while, I drew up the courage to try to impress Caner with my scattered knowledge of Turkey's political situation. I asked him about the outgoing president's assertion, in so many words, that Turkey was dangerously close to falling into the hands of radical Islam, which was the parlance of the time. The Turkish president was your standard secular Middle Eastern politician, the kind constantly warning about Islam, it seemed, in order to scare people. The only thing that stood a chance against the ideological purposefulness of Islamic political parties was the ideological purposefulness of being anti-Islam. The secularists talked about Islam more than anyone else.

"Do you think he actually believes that Turkey will fall into the hands of radical Islam?" I said, spitting out clichés with confidence. "Or is he just saying that to win votes for his party?" Caner was looking at me as if I were insane. "Belief?" he said. "Belief is not about facts. Belief is about a political position." This seemed to both answer and not answer the question. Was he on to me? Could he tell what I was really asking was: Is Turkey falling into the hands of radical Islam? At the time, in 2007, this was all anyone wanted to know. Caner looked as if "radical Islam" was the last thing on his mind. I longed for him to say more, but I was quiet.

Caner was Kurdish, as well as Alevi, a branch of Islam considered heretical by many members of the dominant Sunni sect in Turkey. It was great luck that he was the first person I met in Turkey, the prism through which I slowly tried to understand its politics, because as a member of two outcast minorities, he had no particular love for either the Islamists or secularists, this party or that party. He thought everyone was terrible. He was able to see things more clearly, without passion, without ideology, and consequently without much hope. And bleak as that was, he was a constant reminder to try to think that way, to avoid the traps of one's own bias. I would find it very hard to do.

The following day, he took me to get a cheap secondhand cell phone and an illegitimate SIM card — to this day I am not sure why but the expedition added to my already exaggerated idea of Turkey as an early-stage capitalist country — and we walked across the Galata Bridge, the low-hanging expanse over the Golden Horn that connected European Beyoglu, my neighborhood, to the old Ottoman city. I had heard that men fished off it — this being one of the most common romantic images of Istanbul — but that first day, it shocked me to see so many of them dangling rods and lethal hooks so close to what was a chaotic pedestrian walkway.

"Caner," I said. "Do they need a permit to fish off the bridge?" "Permit?" He again looked at me as if I were insane. "Do … the fish have permits to swim?"

His question delighted me out of all proportion to its content. To look at the world from a new perspective is to feel as if the ropes holding you to the earth have been cut. Caner was going on, laughing, remembering how once a friend of his asked why we called fish "seafood," when that would make humans "landfood." "Don't confuse freedom with happiness," someone said to me in those years. But inside my mind I was reconstituting meanings the way Caner did with words. No one with the same set of constructs I had was watching me, and I had the space to look at everything so differently that I actually felt as if my brain were breathing. In fact, I felt like a child.

ORHAN PAMUK MADE Istanbul's hüzün famous — a fallen-empire melancholy and loss that suffused the city and its people — but Istanbul, at first, was far too beautiful for me to see evidence of rot. Those first days my leg muscles became sore from walking up and down Istanbul's steep hills over and over, trying to memorize it all for an impossible mental map. I was in love, as if I had been living in an upside-down world and suddenly someone had turned everything right-side up. Unlike New York, where buildings blocked the sky, Istanbul from the grand wide lens of its hilltops made you feel bigger, undiminished and uplifted. Down on the narrow streets, close-up, everything seemed to happen in miniature, like on a movie set, and therefore appeared incomparably more human-size: the peasant woman emerged from her shop sweeping; a man pulled his cart of old broken things; a tiny boy trailed after his father; at night a man peed into the doorway; ladies hobbled slowly, one foot, then the other, side to side; men smoked on stools outside hardware stores; antique furniture piled up outside rickety houses; a peddler sold eggs as if from a concession stand. Head scarves bobbed through the crowds like buoys. Rather than some Islamic menace, they seemed like turn-of-the-century Edith Wharton characters in souped-up bonnets. Covered women looked perfectly normal, here, where they lived, carrying grocery bags, walking to work, far away from the theoretical world in which I had imagined them. The impact of merely seeing foreign things with my own eyes was the equivalent of reading a thousand history books. I found that I was watching life more carefully, that every nerve was alive to my environment.

I didn't speak the language, so those first months I lived in a state of white noise and visual bliss. I was forced to look, and to see. In fact, the first time I would return to New York after a year in Istanbul, twelve months of gazing at the Bosphorus, I took a subway over the Manhattan Bridge and it was as if I saw the water in New York for the first time. It wasn't that I noticed its relative homeliness compared to the Bosphorus; it was that I had never actually looked at it. In Istanbul, I ran down every evening to a dusty parking lot where the attendants sipped tea and watched the sun slip behind the minarets and into the Golden Horn: Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, the Galata Tower, the mouth of the Bosphorus. You could see everything from there, but it was just a parking lot, whose inhabitants were three attendants, a cat lady and her ten cats, and three stray dogs. "Come, sit down," the parking lot attendant would say, offering me tea. I stood and watched the sun disappear behind the old city, its red glare thrown across the Bosphorus, transforming the windows of the Asian side into a thousand copper fires. The stray dogs cuddled in the dirt together and howled when the mosque began its call to prayer. In New York such property would be worth millions of dollars and bought up for condos. I'd read somewhere that the Byzantines believed that everyone, rich and poor, deserved a home with a view of the Bosphorus, rather than that it was the exclusive property of a wealthy few. Everything in Turkey seemed antithetical to where I came from.

The real poor, whose ramshackle houses I could sometimes spot lodged into the hill crevices, had arrived in Istanbul during the great global migration to cities that began in the 1950s, by the village-load. Entire towns from Anatolia would claim a patch of land — whether at the open city edges or jammed in between the mansions — and quickly assemble their concrete and tin shelters so that they couldn't be evicted; they put facts on the ground. The slums of Istanbul were called gecekondu, which meant "built overnight," and Istanbul politicians, walking that peculiar line between wily and humane, hurried to promise their new potential constituents electricity and water, knowing that such amenities would win them votes. Regardless of intention, they let them stay. I rarely saw homeless people in Istanbul, and slums never looked nearly as bad as they did in photos of Rio or Nairobi, and even this seemed to me proof of the Turks' enduring humanity. I was the exact opposite of the Americans I'd met my first night in town, who complained about the food, the taxi drivers, the fact that no Turks spoke English. I loved everything, operating in a state of constant emotional genuflection before this secret society that had let me in.

Up the Bosphorus, in the northern villages, there were Ferrari dealerships and ice-cream-cone mansions stacked up steep hills. The Bosphorus looked like some celebrity vacation retreat, like Lake Como. It had the air of exclusivity and endless leisure. Women sat outside for hours at sidewalk tables, all exhausting shades of blond, their thin frames weighed down by Marc Jacobs or Gucci bags. Where did they get all this money? How did they make it? (I had only ever been as far east as Sarajevo.) I looked out the taxi window in Istanbul with a sudden sinking feeling I couldn't put my finger on until years later. Like many of my reactions in those days, this one was embarrassing: it was as if it had never occurred to me that Turkey could be so rich. I would not have thought it could look like this: better than us. I had been invested in an idea of the East's inferiority without even knowing it, and its comparative extraordinariness shook my own self-belief. This was perhaps, too, my first sense of America's decline, and I felt it take me down with it, as if America's shabbiness said something about myself or, worse, as if Turkey's success said something about myself. Was this the same sense of failure Americans had felt when but a handful of men breached American borders and brought the towers down, their power somehow stronger than ours? Was this where American rage came from?

My own rage, a petulant kind of shame-rage, would emerge in Turkish class. My first days of lessons were a disaster of soul-shattering proportions. I had been good at languages in school in that way Americans are — to prepare for tests but never to actually speak them — and had barely glanced at a Turkish textbook before my plane landed, a light perusal of which would have informed me that Turkish was the Ironman of languages, one that shared almost no words with English, and worse, whose sentence structure was the reverse of ours. Unlike an American's first experience of, say, Italian or Arabic, Turkish was not some liberation of the tongue. Turkish felt like a purposely designed obstacle course, all the g's and k's stuck in odd places, as if the founders of the Turkish Republic, who reformed Ottoman Turkish into a new language for a new nation, wanted foreigners to know their place. Well, I knew mine. I couldn't say the words. I couldn't even hear them. My mouth felt slow and stupid; my tongue a flabby, inflexible thing. When I left my language class the first day, I felt a surprising kind of pain, like when you are teased on the playground. I had been instantly rendered the hapless American of stereotype and scorn.


Excerpted from "Notes on a Foreign Country"
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Copyright © 2017 Suzy Hansen.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

1. First Time East: Turkey
2. Finding Engin: Turkey
3. A Cold War Mind: America and the World
4. Benevolent Interventions: Greece and Turkey
5. Money and Military Coups: The Arab World and Turkey
6. Little Americas: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey
7. American Dreams: America, Iran, and Turkey

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