Several years ago, journalist Suzy Hansen met an Iraqi man and asked him what Iraq was like when he was growing up there in the 1980s and 1990s. “I am always amazed when Americans ask me this,” he replied, not unkindly. “How is it that you know nothing about us when you had so much to do with what became of our lives?”
Hansen faced a version of that question more than once after moving to Istanbul in 2007 and traveling widely throughout the Middle East. Her answer comes in the form of a searching and searing new book, Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. In it, she combines a brisk history of America’s anguished intervention in the region; artful reporting on how citizens in Turkey and its neighbors view the United States today; and unsparing self-reflection to explain how she, an Ivy League-educated journalist, could be so ignorant of the extent of her country’s role in remaking the post-World War II world.
Hansen had no particular connection to Turkey when she moved there after receiving a writing fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs. She chose Istanbul because she was interested in learning about Islam in the wake of the 9/11 attacks; the secular republic of Turkey, founded in 1923, had long been heralded by the West as a model for the Muslim world. The fact that her favorite writer, James Baldwin, had lived in Istanbul off and on in the 1960s, claiming to feel more comfortable there than in New York or Paris, also captured her imagination.
Istanbul immediately defied her expectations – she was shocked by how much nicer its airport was than the run-down one she had departed from in New York. “I had been invested in an idea of the East’s inferiority without even knowing it,” she confesses, “and its comparative extraordinariness shook my own self-belief.” Hansen was further jolted when everyday Turks spoke matter-of-factly to her about how Cold War-era American foreign policy, specifically military and economic aid provided as part of the Truman Doctrine to contain Soviet expansion, had helped shape current political conditions in the country. “Americans are surprised by the direct relationship between their country and foreign ones because we don’t acknowledge that America is an empire,” she writes. “It is impossible to understand a relationship if you are not aware you are in one.”
Hansen writes with both authority and humility and, occasionally, with sharp beauty. The anti-Americanism she encountered during her travels, she writes, is “a broken heart, a defensive crouch, a hundred-year-old relationship, bewilderment that an enormous force controls your life but does not know or love you.” Some of the book’s strongest passages involve her rigorous interrogation of the notion of American exceptionalism, of America as the pinnacle of a historical narrative of progress, which she realizes she has internalized. “American exceptionalism did not only define the United States as a special nation among lesser nations, it demanded that all Americans believe they, too, were born superior to others,” she observes. “This was a limitation that was beyond racism, beyond prejudice, and beyond ignorance. This was a kind of nationalism so insidious that I had not known to call it nationalism; this was a self-delusion so complete that I could not see where it began and ended, could not root it out, could not destroy it.”
Also fascinating is the author’s evolving understanding that despite her faith in her journalistic objectivity, the myths she has absorbed affect the way she tells stories from around the globe. Hansen continues to live in Istanbul, reporting on Turkey for The New York Times Magazine. There is, of course, much to write about: In the wake of last summer’s failed coup, the conservative Muslim president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has instituted a brutal crackdown on his political opponents, highlighting the country’s many contradictions, between secularism and Islamism, democracy and authoritarianism. In our post-fact era, journalists are denounced for spreading “fake news” (and it probably goes without saying that those who subscribe to that belief will find little to admire in a book by a reporter that presupposes that America has entered the period of its decline). "Notes on a Foreign Country" is a testament to one journalist’s courage in digging deep within herself to understand the real story and to make sure she gets it right.