A Very American Endeavor

Burak Kara/Getty Images
Suzy Hansen in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, August 2017

Suzy Hansen was twenty-nine when, in 2007, she was awarded a fellowship to study in Turkey. Before leaving New York City for Istanbul, she had led a rather comfortable life as a reporter for The New York Observer, interviewing Woody Allen, covering the Republican Convention, and poking fun at conservative grandees. But Hansen was restless in New York. Though she spent most of her time in their circles, she was disenchanted by what she saw as the narcissism of the city’s young intelligentsia. She found, to her surprise, that September 11 had made people around her—novelists, writers, and intellectuals of a liberal and progressive bent—in most cases indifferent to the effects of America’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There was at first no genuine protest against the war, and no concerted effort to imagine or empathize with the experiences of Afghan and Iraqi citizens. In Hansen’s view, progressive American intellectuals failed to ask themselves the question that had puzzled her in the six years following September 11: Why do they hate us?

It is this question that Hansen pursues in her passionately argued, if somewhat frustrating, first book, Notes on a Foreign Country. In Istanbul, Hansen lived, by and large, in Beyoğlu, the district of artists, hipsters, and dissidents. From the first moment, she adored Istanbul. The colorful old houses, many built by Armenians and Greeks, were cheap to rent; a deserted hill in her neighborhood offered views of the Bosphorus, and she would go there at night to look upon the misty Asian continent beyond the sea. Her first apartment had no heat, and the century-old building featured broken windows and a dilapidated entrance, but Hansen’s enthusiasm did not diminish. Like so many expats before her, including her favorite author, James Baldwin, who had traveled to Istanbul in the 1960s in search of a more liberal atmosphere (Turkey had never criminalized homosexuality), she found refuge from what she considered the oppressive American realities of the time.

Hansen instantly fell in love with Turkey, its people, and its customs. Turkish women in veils did not irritate her; she was more annoyed by her own previous ignorance of their religious values. She watched Turkish Muslims savoring the religious freedoms they had gained under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, only a year after it was founded: she was “consumed” by the country’s “cultural revolution,” which allowed conservative women to wear headscarves in public. She also observed how many pious Turks felt “spiritually redeemed and politically enfranchised” by the rise of Islamist politics. Moreover, she enjoyed seeing money pour into Turkey in an atmosphere of economic liberalization.

Indeed, the country’s economy was booming under AKP rule, and Hansen greatly admired the party’s charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was “pro-business”…

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