Empire Stakes

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

In 2007, Suzy Hansen was a reporter at the New York Observer. Hansen was twenty-nine; she had grown up in a small town in New Jersey and moved to New York City after college. When she first arrived, New York seemed like the center of the world, but in the years after September 11 it began to feel increasingly provincial, both feverish and inward-looking. The liberal journalists she knew were “extremely arrogant,” convinced of their moral superiority to the Bush-era Republicans but strangely indifferent to the wars being fought in their names in Iraq and Afghanistan. Caught up in a narrow round of “money, marriage, brownstone, children, organic market, Pilates,” they didn’t seem to understand their own country, let alone the rest of the world. Reasoning that the best way to overcome this incuriosity was to go abroad, Hansen applied for a two-year writing fellowship in Turkey. After being accepted, she packed her bags for Istanbul, the city where she would end up spending the next ten years.

Before leaving the United States, Hansen had not thought of herself as particularly American. In Istanbul, it came as a surprise when the Turks she met seemed to have very definite ideas about who she was and what Americans were like. She understood that the US was an empire, and yet, like most Americans, when she thought of American imperialism, her immediate associations were with the Cold War, with Vietnam and Latin America, not with Turkey in the twenty-first century. Her years abroad forced her to reckon with the true extent of her country’s destructive influence on the rest of the world. Notes on a Foreign Country is a loosely organized memoir of her political education, combining descriptions of her years in Turkey, brief sketches of other countries she visited over the course of her work as a journalist covering the Middle East, and reflections on her changing relationship to the US. The book takes the form of a conversion narrative, tracing Hansen’s gradual disillusionment with her identity as an American and her construction of a new identity as an expatriate and a critic of empire.

Looking back ruefully on her younger self, Hansen realizes that she thought in ways she would later see as naive and overconfident. When she arrives in Istanbul, she throws herself into her new surroundings, struggling to make sense of the country and its politics. Her first impulse is to support Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an, whose “pro-business” stance and use of “words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’” have a comforting and familiar ring, but she eventually comes to view this initial affinity as an effect of her own prejudices: His fluency in the language of liberal democracy and human rights flattered her belief that these are universal goods the US has a singular mission to bestow on the rest of the world. After a few months in the country, her confidence gives way to a sense of humility. She starts examining her previously hidden assumptions, which are just beginningto surface. “Here’s the thing,” she says,

no one ever tells Americans that when they move abroad, even if they are empathetic and sensitive humans—even if they come clean about their genetic inability to learn languages, even if they consider themselves leftist critics of their own government—that they will inevitably, and unconsciously, spend those first months in a foreign country feeling superior to everyone around them and to the nation in which they now have the privilege to live.

Beneath this sense of superiority, Hansen finds another unquestioned belief: That the US is “unique in the world, the one truly free and modern country.” She realizes that American exceptionalism is evidence of a pernicious nationalism, “a kind of nationalism so insidious that I had not known to call it nationalism . . . a self-delusion so complete that I could not see where it began and ended, could not root it out, could not destroy it.” Her problem, Hansen concludes, is not only ignorance, but also that “what I did know, and how I did think, had been an obstacle to original and accurate and moral thinking. This could only mean that in order to see a foriegn country clearly, I would first have to excavate my mind.”

Rather than a “joyous romp of self-discovery and romance,” this process of excavation makes Hansen experience her years abroad as “a shattering and a shame.” She feels “haunted” by her own ignorance, and embarrassed about her inability to pronounce Turkish words: “My mouth felt slow and stupid; my tongue a flabby, inflexible thing.” During this painful period of disorientation, she relinquishes many of her other previously held opinions and comes to a new understanding of Turkish history. At first, she had uncritically accepted that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s early-twentieth-century secularist revolution, which remade Turkey according to Western ideals of modernity, was a sign of progress: “My assumption had been that any social revolution that resulted in a country becoming more ‘modern,’ in the American sense, must have been a good thing.” After her conversion, Hansen embraces the opposite view, neatly turning her previous ideas on their head. In Turkey’s case, “not only had this revolution been damaging, but it hadn’t worked.” Instead of leading to the new enlightened era Atatürk had envisioned, its effect had been to replace the “very warm, very close” organic society of the Ottoman Empire with a form of authoritarian nationalism that inevitably bred resistance and discontent. Shedding the “typical Western ideals of individualism” she had absorbed in New York, Hansen arrives at a chastened appreciation of family and communal values. “I had come to believe,” she says, “that it was the Turkish family that held Turkey together, it was the strongest thing.” Through her exposure to this different world, she feels connected to a deeper, more vital reality, one based on a tragic sense of history rather than the relentless optimism of the American dream.

After her fellowship ends, Hansen decides to remain abroad. The book’s later chapters contain accounts of her reporting trips throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. Her eyes opened to the US’s long and violent history in the region, Hansen traces every ongoing crisis she reports on back to an earlier American intervention. In Greece, she interviews the left-wing economist Yanis Varoufakis, who explains that the Marshall Plan had not been an act of charity but “a global economic scheme” that led to his country’s 2010 debt crisis. In Egypt, she discovers that the US support for Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime contributed to the country’s 2011 revolution. In Afghanistan, she confronts the evidence of US support for the anti-Soviet mujahideen of the 1980s, which led to the rise of the Taliban. In Iran, she visits a museum dedicated to detailing the torture methods used by the shah’s secret police, who were trained by the CIA. Encountering other Americans abroad is a painful experience. The sight of “blond American girl tourists in tight short shorts outside a mosque” fills her with shame. She feels a furious contempt for most expatriates, who complain about foreign food and don’t know “the difference between Sunni and Shiite, or how to pronounce Iran (‘E-ron’).” The only ones she respects are war reporters, who have “a purpose for living I had not yet glimpsed in my generation.”

Despite her passion and unwavering political commitment, Hansen’s attention to excavating the crimes of the past sometimes comes at the expense of the present. Without the fabric of her daily life in Istanbul to draw on, her accounts of her reporting trips lack the detail and nuance of the book’s first chapters; Egypt, Greece, Iran, Afghanistan blur into an undifferentiated exhibit of the atrocities of American imperialism. Returning to Turkey at the end of the book, Hansen devotes only a few paragraphs to the 2013 Gezi Park protests and gives an equally cursory account of last summer’s attempted coup, describing it as “a fracturing of Islamist power, rooted in a long history, and likely one that would emerge ever more important to understand in the years to come.”

In the book’s final pages, Hansen turns to the question of how to forge a new American identity in an era when American influence is waning. The recommendation she gives—a collective “project of remembrance” and atonement—is primarily aimed at forcing her fellow citizens to confront the country’s historical crimes. The result would look something like the national identity adopted by Germany after the Second World War. But this vision seems to overstate the degree to which American imperialism is a thing of the past rather than a real, if declining, force in the present. One might hope that a new American identity would be based not only on spiritual cleansing for the sins of empire, but on working to curb that empire’s existing apparatus. Hansen concludes with a stirring call for other Americans to be reshaped by going abroad, as she has done. Here, she says, “we will find our country everywhere, among the city streets and town squares and empty fields of the world, where we may also discover that the possibility of redemption is not because of our own God-given beneficence but proof of the world’s unending generosity.” But unending generosity seems like a lot to ask from the rest of the world; redemption too much to hope for from any political process. Perhaps learning to be an American in a post-American world involves reducing the scale of our expectations.

Namara Smith is an editor at n+1.