Suzy Hansen moved to Istanbul in 2007 after being awarded a fellowship, and is still living in Istanbul a decade later. Hansen is a contributing writer for the New York Times and has had stories published by The Nation, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, and Foreign Policy, among other publications.
Last month, Hansen released her first book, Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. The book details her experiences living in Turkey and reporting across as the Middle East as she grapples with her homeland and its place in the world. Publishers Weekly calls it a “searing critique of the ugly depths of American ignorance, made more dangerous because the declining U.S. imperial system coincides with decay at home.”
Can you summarize what Notes on a Foreign Country is about?
The book is about how the rest of the world views the United States, how Americans relate to their country’s foreign policy, and how that relationship forms their own worldview, prejudices, and perceptions. To tell this story, I use my own experience of moving to Istanbul, traveling around the region and working as a journalist, as well as a tremendous amount of reading and research. The book ends up breaking down into a number of narratives – one in which I struggle to understand Turkey, one in which I begin to understand the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world, and one in which I examine what it ultimately means to be American. So there are elements of reportage, history, and memoir in the book. Ultimately, I argue that as an American it is very difficult to see the world clearly, as well as it is to see ourselves; that in fact much of our identity is dependent on the fact that we do not. The book ends with Trump’s election which seemed appropriate.
Why is that important for people to know about and understand?
I am from a conservative, somewhat insular place – your standard small American town – and yet went to a good college and spent my 20s in New York media amongst very well-educated people. I guess you could loosely call these two worlds the Trump voters and the so-called liberal elite. But from abroad, in certain ways, both groups look the same to me – I think all Americans suffer from a lot of the same problems, which is namely that we have this deep faith and dependence on our own American exceptionalism, which essentially tells us, perhaps unconsciously, that no matter what wrongs we commit around the world, we are still good people with good intentions – the best there is, at least. There are a whole slew of pathologies and prejudices that come with that worldview. I tried hard to unearth and examine my own.
In 2007, you won a grant to live in Istanbul, Turkey. It was your first experience living in a Muslim-majority country. You write about the perceptions you had before going. Could you talk about those perceptions and how they changed after living in Istanbul?
A lot of what I talk about in my book are reflexes – these sort of automatic emotions or thoughts that we have no control over. Many of us will fight those reflexes with education, empathy, self-awareness, but I do think it’s in the reflexes that you find the truth (and how you can understand the deeper American character.) I moved to Istanbul some years after Sept. 11th and I explain that even though I was horrified by the Islamophobia of the time, there was some part of me that was infected by it – in the way of so-called well-meaning liberals, those who looked at the Islamic world as if it were a problem that needed to be solved. This is always dangerous.
Notes on a Foreign Country isn’t just one story. You write about Turkish politics, your visits to Greece, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan. You also write about how your view and understanding about the US shifted. How did that happen? What did you learn?
I should say that by the time I moved to Istanbul I was left-leaning and very critical of the US government. My point is that politics doesn’t really matter when it comes to his phenomenon of American identity and ignorance. There was still so much I didn’t know about America’s history in the region, and I still had really problematic assumptions and, again, reflexes. As I explain, there was some part of me that still saw the American system as one that most of the rest of the world was aspiring to, and I judged those places accordingly. I came to believe that the American mind was simply shaped according to this assumption – that it is very hard for them to think differently without a lot of work. I also came to believe that Americans lack a certain kind of empathy that may take decades for them to make up for. We are much too comfortable with violence and the deaths of others. It’s a moral crisis.
You write about the rise of Erdogan in Turkey and how you saw that as positive. Over the past decade, Erdogan has become much more authoritarian in nature. Could you explain that shift?
I was caught up in a certain mood at the time – the secularists and others were protesting Abdullah Gul’s ascendance to the presidency, the military had threatened to intervene, and I saw it as a kind of prejudice on the part of citizens and anti-democratic on the part of the military. It’s easy to forget now, but a lot of people were accepting of the AK Party then, even if just quietly – they were making reforms, they were making peace with the Kurds, and they very cleverly (much assisted by the Gulenists) used the rhetoric of human rights and democracy. Much of the other side made sympathy for them (or at the very least an openness to them) easy by looking down on women who wore headscarves, and having been authoritarian themselves for many decades. There was a briefly positive period and then very quickly it became clear – by 2009, 2010, 2011 – that things were taking a dark turn. I think the internal dispute between the Gulenists and the AK Party then blew the whole thing apart, and the country suffered and is suffering for it.
What do we in the West get wrong about Turkey?
As with any country, we tend to see the various identities in Turkey as much less complex than they are. The idea of the Islamist vs. the secularist was seductive to me in the beginning, and is still seductive to many – editors and journalists are working under tighter and tighter conditions with fewer and fewer word counts and they’re under pressure to break things down into simple terms. Even in a 6000 word magazine piece I find I can’t explain Turkey’s history quite the way I want to. But that Islamist vs. secularist dichotomy has always been in many ways false. The real shame of it is that the history of political identity in Turkey is so fascinating – especially the way the left and right splintered into many smaller groups during the Cold War. You can’t really understand Turkey now without knowing that history which really only books can tell you.
What advice do you have for those who want to have a globally-informed view of the US and the world, but don’t have the means to travel?
Seek out books, articles, essays, academic texts, and novels by people who are from the countries you want to learn about. Don’t just rely on foreign correspondents or Western writers. The thing I most enjoyed about writing this book was the chance to read all this incredible writing.