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” and “ably used words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’” Her ears weren’t fully open to the criticisms of secularists who disliked Erdoğan’s religious values and high-handed political style, and were uneasy about his rapidly growing voter base. She was struck by how closely the so-called White Turks, the city’s elites, resembled Islamophobes in America. In the luxurious sections of Istanbul, in gated communities full of Lamborghinis and Ferraris, rich people openly expressed their hatred for Islam and veiled women, naively confiding in a New Yorker who they thought would sympathize with their concerns. Instead she was appalled, shocked by the bigoted views that they held and articulated despite growing up in an Islamic country as Muslims. Later she wished she had listened more carefully to their criticisms of Turkey’s Islamists.
In 2009, Hansen’s fellowship came to an end. The market for magazine writers in Manhattan was shrinking. Istanbul was cheap and, despite the global financial crisis, still economically sound. I first met her in 2011 for a coffee, in a restaurant overlooking Istanbul’s Gezi Park. She struck me as a friendly and rather earnest bookworm. She listened to what I had to say about Turkey, and told me that she had ordered numerous scholarly monographs about my country from Amazon. I found her an intriguing figure, and wondered which ones she was poring over in her apartment. Most American correspondents come to Istanbul for a few years. Some look carefully at Turkish realities; others pass their time at the house parties of other foreign correspondents; few learn the language. Hansen was different. She mastered Turkish and took the time to navigate the culture. For her, Turkey was not just a short-term assignment.
Two years before I met her, Hansen experienced a period of disillusionment and self-scrutiny when she started traveling outside of Cihangir, our bohemian neighborhood, to report on Turkish affairs for American outlets. She realized that her favorable view of Erdoğan’s leadership (which, in those years, dominated the coverage of Turkey in most leading Western publications) ignored the underlying threat of authoritarianism. She decided she had confused Turkey’s forceful and relentless Americanization with democratization. Indeed, Istanbul’s creative industries were receiving increased financial support and liberals discussed Turkey’s democratization at rooftop parties. At the same time, however, journalists, intellectuals, and soldiers critical of their country’s relations with America were being taken from their beds in dawn operations conducted by Turkish cops. A major target of their criticism was Erdoğan’s alliance with the Gülenists—a group of religious Muslims led by Fethullah Gülen, a self-exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania.
Since the mid-1980s, Gülen had commanded a media empire of newspapers, television channels, and radio stations that were funded partly by himmet, or charity money, collected from movement members. For a politician, sportsman, author, artist, or any public figure in Turkey, support from Gülen’s media meant better career prospects in their respective fields, thanks to the movement’s exertion of influence on both the upper echelons of political power and on the hundreds of thousands of Turks who followed the teachings of Gülen.
Gülenist prosecutors allied with the AKP imprisoned writers, military personnel, and politicians critical of the deals between the country’s government and Gülen, considered by some as linked to the CIA. Those trials, “Ergenekon” (2008), “Sledgehammer” (2010), and “OdaTV” (2011), were unfair, based largely on fabricated evidence. The main trial, Ergenekon, concluded with consecutive life sentences for three and aggravated life sentences for eleven others. Erdoğan supported these trials and seemed happy to watch Turkey’s old guard—the Kemalists, the hard left, and nationalist republicans—put out of action. But in 2013, he cut ties with Gülen and started making the same accusations about him that the Turkish leftists had used before their imprisonment in those trials. In 2016, he accused Gülen of planning an attempted coup from his residence in Pennsylvania; in those days, leftists reminded him of their warnings about Gülen and the CIA.
Hansen was aware of the Gülenists and in fact was studying the international activities of the Gülen movement, with its large network of charter schools based in dozens of cities including Kabul, Mexico City, and Washington, D.C. She writes about how “few editors were curious about Gülen…. One told me that he couldn’t see why the Gülen movement, being peaceful and nonthreatening, had anything to do with American interests.” In 2012 The New York Times hired Hansen as a contributing writer for its Sunday magazine; a year later she reported from Gezi Park where the Turkish police burned the tents of activists who were protesting against the building of a shopping mall. Eight people died during those protests, more than eight thousand were wounded, and almost five thousand arrested. Those who were observing Turkey were surprised: they never expected that young Turks would fight the government. The protests vaguely resembled the Occupy Wall Street movement; the slogan was “Occupy Gezi.” Hansen admired those young people fighting against the power of finance, gentrification, and modernization.
In 2014 she visited a town in the Aegean region of Turkey called Soma, where a mining disaster had killed 301 workers. This proved to be the life-changing story for Hansen: it opened her eyes to America’s influence on Turkey. She writes about how “the two longest periods of American imperial history—the cold war and the age of neoliberalism—finally came together for me, in a coal mine, in Turkey.” The local labor union Türk-İş, founded in 1952, was allied with the government, helping to quell worker agitation concerning unsafe conditions at the mine. Türk-İş was founded by conservative union leaders and was accused by left-wing unions of being an American tool that preached anticommunism to Turkish workers.
The more Hansen learned about Turkish-American ties, the more profoundly she questioned her underlying assumptions and prejudices, and her identity as an American abroad. In the 1950s, as part of the Marshall Plan, the US had helped Turks build a colossal road connecting dozens of Anatolian cities, and in ways large and small assisted Turkey in its modernization. Conrad Hilton, the hotel magnate, opened hotels in Turkey with an eye toward creating “little Americas”; his Turkish Hiltons offered the best burgers and American architecture to the country’s upper middle classes.
Politicians in Turkey who resisted this American influence fared poorly. In the 1970s, when struggling to cut New York’s heroin supplies, the Carter administration had applied pressure on Turkey’s left-nationalist leader, Bülent Ecevit, to halt his country’s poppy production. But for Ecevit, a poet and a translator of Rabindranath Tagore, poppy was the lifeblood of thousands of farmers in rural Turkey and he felt that needed defending. American dislike for such populist politicians continued during the 1980s. “We admire the way in which order and law have been restored in Turkey,” said President Reagan’s secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, a few months after the 1980 military coup that resulted in the arrest of Ecevit and the torture of tens of thousands of Turks.
Even the rise of Erdoğan’s conservative politics was partly fueled by the US Republicans’ preference of Islam over communism (another example of which was witnessed in Afghanistan): after the coup, Turkish students were taught a “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” that emphasized the importance of Islam to the formation of their national identity. In the aftermath of September 11, Turkey’s combination of Islam, democracy, and capitalism was presented by the White House as a role model for the Muslim world.
Many Turks, especially those in the middle classes, did not seem averse to Turkey’s Americanization, and many even welcomed it. They were attracted to the entrepreneurial spirit. In 1950, a local grocer in the small Turkish town of Balgat told a group of American scholars that Hollywood was his avenue to the wider world of his dreams. It was an American film that gave him the first idea of “what a real grocery store could be like.” A great many Turks felt the same way. When the USS Missouri, one of the US Navy’s most powerful battleships, arrived at an Istanbul port in 1946, the mahya, or message, spelled out in lights strung between the minarets of the Blue Mosque sent Americans a message in their own language: Welcome.
And yet Hansen’s research on American influence on Turkey led her to self-examination. She realized she was “of the place that exerted power over [the Turks]” and understood that assertion of power necessarily came with prejudice. She found fault with her own worldview, her American innocence, and the life she had led up to that point of discovery in 2009:
Once you realize that the way you have looked at the world—the way you viewed your country, your history, your life—has been muddled, you begin a process of shedding layers of skin. It’s a slow process, you break down, you open up, but you also resist, much like how the body can begin to heal, only to fall back into its sicker state.
Notes on a Foreign Country is not just a memoir of living in Turkey or an overview of its American-inspired modernization. Hansen tries to tell a larger and more expansive story about US foreign policy after 1945. Unfortunately, however, this large section of the book, which looks at Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan (countries that Hansen visited on journalistic assignments) through the perspective of American responsibility, too often lacks nuance; it may remind many readers of the heavy-handed works of Noam Chomsky. Others will find her canvas too large, and certain parts of it not properly textured. These chapters pale in comparison to those on Turkey, the country she knows best.
As Hansen travels outside Turkey, she is constantly reminded of American interventions past. She is appalled by the level of poverty in Cairo, which she visits in 2012, and is surprised that a country receiving more American aid than any other besides Israel could be so poor. American support for Hosni Mubarak fills her with shame, and she feels “wholeheartedly that America was me, and I was it. This recognition did not feel like a form of guilt at all, something that can be indulged, regretted, and forgotten.” In Kabul, Hansen meets a group of American contractors, entrepreneurs in a war-torn land who remind her of “Wall Street guys at a strip club, hedge funders launching into a round of steaks.” She is irritated by the way American officials “always spoke to grown men in foreign countries as if they were children.”
In grocery stores in Kabul she sees vitamin supplements, condoms, and stacks of The Economist, but the city has no proper roads. To her driver she expresses “surprise that ‘we’ hadn’t even bothered to fix the roads of our imperial city in nine years.” In Athens, Hansen hears about the fate of George Polk, the American journalist who questioned Truman’s policy of supporting the right-wing government during the Greek civil war. Polk’s murder in 1948 by Greek thugs had, in Hansen’s words, been “covered up with the assistance of American embassy staff, high-ranking CIA officials, and even American journalists.” Hansen does not bring anything new to the story that Kati Marton’s The Polk Conspiracy (1990) told.
Hansen devotes many pages to the roots of the US “empire,” with passages on Woodrow Wilson, scholars who created modernization theory (their view of modernization, as a transition from traditional, immature societies to modern, mature ones, still defines American perceptions of the world, according to Hansen), and journalists who toed the official line about the necessity of America’s bringing underdeveloped nations to maturity. Specialists will find these pages too familiar; nonspecialists may find them too tendentious.
Hansen is not just critical of government officials and scholars. She is also disappointed by the American people, who tend to care more about their bank accounts and property values than about what their government has done to other countries in their name. She blames American television and radio for cold war propaganda; she also focuses on highbrow cultural institutions that helped to shape the American mind during the cold war.
As part of her indictment, she draws attention to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which she feels pushed American writing toward the mundane and away from international concerns. She takes issue with intellectual magazines she finds complicit in this state of disinterest. Even John Hersey’s classic New Yorker reportage about Hiroshima does not satisfy her. She admiringly quotes Gore Vidal’s critique, repeating his claim that objective American journalism “avoided the larger political questions surrounding the bomb’s discharge.” In her view, this “raises the question of whether the American style of journalism merely records history, rather than reckoning with it.” A writer can, of course, favor the analytical over the descriptive, but prose of this sort is a disservice to Hersey.
After learning about American interventions around the world, Hansen characterizes the transformation of her mind in dental terms: “My brain experienced the acquisition of such knowledge like a cavity filling: something drilled out, something shoved in, and afterward, a persistent, dull ache and a tooth that would never be the same.” Notes on a Foreign Country at times reads like a chronicle of an American trying to get rid of the rotten tooth of her identity and struggling to replace it with something healthier. But the effect can be awkward; shame is not necessarily a useful organizing principle for a nonfiction book.
Why so much angst? Perhaps she feels guilty about her initial support for the AKP, or for her early belief in American goodness, but that guilt, I think, drives her toward an angrier and cruder critique of American foreign policy than is necessary. Hansen learned about America’s interventions in her early thirties; one wonders why it took her so long to reflect on America’s behavior abroad. And not all Americans are as ignorant of the world as Hansen’s intellectual friends in New York: in 2014, Arabic was the fastest-growing foreign language studied in the US; in 2015 the Modern Language Association announced that college students taking Arabic courses tripled, to more than 32,000, from 2002 to 2013.
A more pervasive problem concerns the way Hansen presents people living under American influence in countries such as Turkey. They are not as victimized as Hansen wants us to believe. In every free election held in Turkey since 1950, Turks have elected the party that offers an American-style modernizing agenda that combines capitalist and religious freedoms, even though they are well aware of American intervention during the cold war. Turkey’s Communists and Marxists (many of whom were jailed and killed in the 1970s and 1980s) may have the moral high ground in their critiques of American imperialism, but there is little popular support for them, at least at the ballot box.
Hansen finds, by the end of Notes on a Foreign Country, an answer to the question Why do they hate us? But the real question, the question that has not been properly asked, is one that Hansen herself ends up ignoring: Why do they love us? Most people prefer to buy American consumer goods rather than books and films about Jacobo Árbenz, Mohammad Mossadegh, Salvador Allende, and other victims of America’s cold war foreign policy. Svetlana Alexievich, in Secondhand Time, describes how Russians became obsessed with Western-style blue jeans after communism fell; in Turkey, too, despite considerable hostility toward American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is still love for the American way of life.
Nineteenth-century American visitors to Istanbul were more interested in the city’s natural beauty and exoticism than its people. In 1867, Mark Twain wrote extensively about Istanbul’s stray dogs, beggars, and palaces, but not much about its ordinary folk. Others savored aspects of the city that seemed strange to them. Ernest Hemingway, when he worked in Istanbul as a foreign correspondent, was mesmerized by the muezzin and noted how his voice “soars and dips like an aria from a Russian opera.”
But Hansen writes from inside the culture. Notes on a Foreign Country provides a kind of absolution and redemption for one thoughtful and sensitive US citizen.
This is indeed a very American endeavor in another sense. Amid her struggles to accept and analyze responsibility for her country’s interventions around the world, Turkey in the end recedes, and becomes a palimpsest for a Westerner’s self-discovery. To a non-Western reader, this exercise is all too familiar, even when conducted by an insightful writer with remarkable powers of observation.