Dear Commons Community,
While traveling last week, I read Suzy Hansen’s book, Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World. You have to read this book carefully because the author covers a lot of ground and has important messages about how Americans see themselves and how the rest of the world, particularly people living in the Middle East, sees Americans. Although born and raised in New Jersey and worked for a while in New York City as a journalist, she leaves in 2007 to spend several years in Istanbul on a fellowship and decides to stay there.
While living in Turkey, she comes to realize that Americans have quite a different view of who they are versus the rest of the universe. Americans see themselves as living in the greatest country in the world and have no problem pushing their way into other countries neglecting what they are doing to cultures and people’s lives. Furthermore, she also does a fairly good analysis of American foreign policy over the past hundred years that essentially attempted to promote American values and thwart communist incursions and influence. Here is an excerpt from a New York Times review:
“Hansen is not only unnerved by but also genuinely interested in the ways her country fails to “interrogate” itself. She asks why, given the extent to which America has shaped the modern Middle East — the lives it ended, the countries it fractured, the demons it created, its frantic and fanatical support of Israel — it “did not feel or care to explore what that influence meant.” She is unsettled by how absent or illusive or, worse, unnecessary this fact is to many Americans, including herself — for, before anything else, “Notes on a Foreign Country” is a sincere and intelligent act of self-questioning. It is a political and personal memoir that negotiates that vertiginous distance that exists between what America is and what it thinks of itself. That dramatic, dizzying and lonesome chasm is Hansen’s terrain.
One of the causes of this disparity, she proposes, is that “Americans are surprised by the direct relationship between their country and foreign ones because we don’t acknowledge that America is an empire.” She is curious about the nature of the impediment, about how “ignorance is vulnerable to the atmosphere it is exposed to.” Without realizing it, she too had absorbed a fear of Islam and the idea that Muslims “were people that must be restrained.” She admits, “My problem was that not only had I not known much about the Middle East, but what I did know, and how I did think, had been an obstacle to original and accurate and moral thinking.”
The book is well-written and engaging but as I mentioned earlier has to be read carefully. There are some small issues such as she relies moslty on novelists and fiction to support her positions. She displays an immediate dislike for Turkey’s former president, Mustafa Attaturk, who secularized the country without sufficiently evaluating the turmoil that existed in his country and the pluses and minuses of his regime. She also can treat enormously complex issues such as the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima in one and half pages. There is a ton of analysis on this both pro and con that cannot be reduced to a quick commentary and conclusion.
In reading Hansen’s book, I recalled several times the 1958 best-selling novel, The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, that traced American foreign policy blunders in Southeast Asia in the post-World War II era. Hansen’s book dovetails with what Burdick and Lederer said about how America pushed its way into other countries much to the detriment of indigenous populations. Hansen reduces a lot of the distrust if not the hatred in the Arab world to a combination of America’s economic hegemony, its unabashed promotion of Western culture, and its support and backing of Israel.
I have visited Istanbul and Cairo, two cities that figure prominently in Hansen’s book and I understand a bit of what she is saying. I would give her “Notes…” a read!