Notes on a Foreign Country

Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World BY Suzy Hansen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.
The cover of Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World

In the weeks before my departure, I spent hours explaining Turkey’s international relevance to my bored loved ones, no doubt deploying the cliché that Istanbul was the bridge between East and West. At first, my family was not exactly thrilled for me; New York had been vile enough in their minds. My brother’s reaction to the news that I won this generous fellowship was something like, “See? I told you she was going to get it,” as if it had been a threat he’d been warning the home front about. My mother asked whether this meant I didn’t want the pretty luggage she’d bought me for Christmas, imagining it wasn’t fit for the Middle East, and like most women of her generation quietly hoorayed her daughter’s adventure. My father, who feared that Islamic terrorists would soon bomb the entire Eastern Seaboard into the Atlantic, stayed up one night watching Pope Benedict’s historic 2006 visit to Istanbul on CNN. I woke up to an e-mail time-stamped 3:00 a.m. that read: “Did you know that Turkey is 99 percent Muslim? Are you out of your mind?”

It is astonishing to me now, but I remember that I, the New Yorker who believed herself so different from her origins, replied calmly: “In Turkey, they restrain Islam. They make the women take their head scarves off and put them in a box before they are allowed to enter university campuses”—as if the women themselves did not mind this humiliating and inconvenient experience, as if I would ever deposit a precious piece of my wardrobe into some policeman’s cardboard box. At that time, Western thinkers heralded Turkey as the one successful Muslim country, and its secularist founder, Atatürk, as the kind of dictator even a liberal could love. I wasn’t just trying to reassure my father; apparently I feared Islam in those days, too. We had all lost our marbles after September 11.

I was inflicting myself on Turkey without good or sentimental reason. I had no connections to the country, but then again I had no connections to anywhere. I was American, two times removed from any European provenance or familial history. My immigrant grandparents did what the United States of America told them to do: wipe the slate clean. The price of entrance was to forget the past. I was moving to Turkey in part because I had nowhere else to go. Where I was from, few people chose to live abroad; most people didn’t even go on vacation. My town was located by the Jersey Shore, two hours from New York, in a county both working-class and filthy rich that would one day turn red for Donald Trump. I don’t remember much talk of foreign affairs, or other countries, rarely even New York, which loomed like a terrifying shadow above us, the place Americans went either to be mugged or to think they were better than everyone else. That was my sense of the outside world: where Americans went to be hurt or to hurt others. When I got into an Ivy League college, I took this small-town defensiveness with me, but slowly discovered that the world was actually kaleidoscopic, full of possibilities.

So, of course, New York became the dream, the land of meaningful pursuits, a chance for absolution of my small-town sins. After college, I moved there and eventually got a job as a journalist at a weekly newspaper, The New York Observer. The month I started, in August 2004, the Republican Convention had come to New York. The Republicans’ arrival felt like an insult to the city’s liberals, those who had voted for Al Gore and were against the war in Iraq. As reporters, we crashed the parties and made fun of the rubes. But to me they didn’t look much different from the New Yorkers. The Republicans were the world’s warriors, another power elite. They had come to a city that not-so-secretly celebrated and worshipped the winners, no matter their deeds.

By then, New York had morphed, thanks to the Internet, into a cocaine-and-steroids version of itself. Only a few years after September 11, we had in fact become less introspective. The compassionate efforts to understand our new, uncertain world were replaced by an ever more certain set of ways to manage it—money, marriage, brownstone, children, organic market, Pilates—all of it fueled by a sleazily exuberant stock market. September 11 had been just another dip in the market. During the most catastrophic years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, New York threw a giant party.

There was a terrible fissure between this surreal New York and the reality outside of it: the invasion of Iraq, this new terror war. The frantic scrambling to read books on the Taliban and Sayyid Qutb and Islam itself—which seemed to many not one of the world’s three main monotheistic faiths but a newly discovered alien philosophy—didn’t continue after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t remember a whole lot of people buying books about Iraq at all, except for the ones that made the case for invasion, like Republic of Fear and The Threatening Storm. By 2005, the wars disappeared from television. Had the media become so elitist, so dominated by Harvard and Yale graduates, that none of us knew the soldiers fighting, didn’t feel impassioned by the wars? That very process I’d longed for when I moved to New York, the severing of my small-town identity, had only resulted in a new kind of ignorance, a disconnection from the rest of the country. To some sophisticates I met in New York, my apparent provinciality had been a kind of exoticism; I was a survivor of those horrible American places they glimpsed on Fox News. But New Yorkers were ignorant about them, too. And realizing this, suddenly, the New Yorkers I had so long admired and envied seemed to be the provincial ones—if they didn’t understand their own country, I wasn’t sure any of us could possibly understand the world.

To me, New York’s beautiful diversity had been the best life America had to offer. But I knew there was something wrong with the way we were living. We walked around with this nagging sense that something happened to us, but I didn’t know what and didn’t know why. That was one of the reasons I applied for the fellowship; I knew that my own confusion had to do with some central unawareness of the world, the kind that would only be reinforced, time and again, by the very thing I had once loved about New York, a sophistication built by an army of defense mechanisms.

Excerpted from Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad In a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen, published in 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (C) 2017 by Suzy Hansen. All rights reserved.