The innocuous title of Suzy Hansen’s “Notes on a Foreign Country” offers little sense of the eloquent and impassioned prose that lies within the book’s covers. The notes divide roughly into three sections, but her message remains consistent. Over the past century, our government has employed its military, its intelligence agencies and its economic might to remake other countries into satellites of the American empire — and our national complacency has allowed this to happen. “The most terrifying of my discoveries,” she writes, was “the resilience of my own innocence.”
The first half of Hansen’s work centers on her life in Istanbul, and it is compelling reading. Apolitical through childhood and college, Hansen saw her interest in world affairs sparked in 2007, when she won a prestigious writing fellowship that required her to “interpret a people, or a group, to itself and to others.” In Turkey she planned to research the 1915 Armenian genocide, but found herself interested in all aspects of Turkish life — its customs, its language, the beauty and cleanliness of the cities, and especially, the complexities of government.
Yet her true discovery was what “American” meant to others. When she asked Turkish friends about the corruption she saw, the poverty and the virulent nationalism, they were surprised by the naiveté of her questions. After 1950, she learned, America remade Turkey in its own image. Americans developed a “modernization plan” for Turkey so that its military, media, roads and government all mirrored those in the United States. With this makeover came entanglement in NATO, American military bases and the destruction of local industries as American products flooded the markets. While Hansen wished to view herself a neutral outsider, her “objective mind was still an American mind,” informed by American news, which is “always reported from a position of power.”
Hansen’s stay lasted seven years. During this time she visited Greece, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan. I am tempted to call these countries “trouble spots,” but the theme of this second section, Hansen frequently reminds us, is that American intervention has brought much of the trouble. All four countries have gone through American-engineered coups and have had repressive military dictatorships foisted upon them. Hansen has much to say on the civilian cost of regime change. If this section of the book suffers, it is because she is no longer being flooded with epiphanies while living the Turkish experience; here she is mostly reporting.
Hansen closes with a wonderful vignette about a black doctor in rural Mississippi who is working to implement an Iranian system of “health houses” that serve the poor. If this notion merits a double take, Hansen reminds us that the popularity of Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood resides in their willingness to provide basic social services to people who would otherwise go wanting. America has much to learn about the rest of the world, and Hansen leaves us with the fervent hope that Americans can reconnect to the rest of humanity. America’s future, she writes, “will, hopefully, not be about breaking from the past, but about breaking from the habit of its disavowal.”
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
Notes on a Foreign Country
By: Suzy Hansen.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 276 pages, $26.