Book Review: Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen

This brilliant book was slow going for me at first until I understood what the author was up to. I expected it to be a memoir, but it takes more of a journalistic approach. The author received a fellowship to conduct research in Istanbul in 2007, fell in love with Turkey, and has been living there ever since. She writes about American intrusions and interference in Turkey, Greece, Iran, and Afghanistan. In fact, however, the foreign country in the title of the book is the United States.

I don’t know if you have to have lived abroad in some of these countries for awhile to get the point of some of Hansen’s dissertations, but it helps. I could fully empathize with her insistence that only by leaving the United States could she really begin to understand it and its relation to other countries. I lived overseas for thirty-five years. I get it.

My first incursions in the countries that Hansen writes about were as a hippy traveler back in the 1970s. I hitchhiked around Greece, and then struck out across the Mideast, passing through Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan on the strength of my thumb before switching over to public transportation in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Afghanistan was not a war zone back then as it is now. In Kandahar there was a street lined with hippy hotels, and in Kabul was an entire neighborhood known as Freak Street full of cheap hotels and restaurants serving pseudo-western food.

Iran was a bit higher class, as the Shah was in power at the time and a lot of foreign money, much of it from the United States, was pouring in. There was a thriving middle class, and I had no trouble at all getting rides from drivers who would also invite me for meals.

Turkey, on the other hand, I mainly passed through as fast as I could. If truth be told, I found Turkey, especially eastern Turkey, intimidating and inhospitable. On one occasion, I was riding shotgun in the cab of a huge German truck when a gang of villagers burst out of the night shadows and pelted the windshield of the truck with rocks. The glass erupted into starry patterns. The furious driver stopped the truck, cursing loudly, grabbed a tire iron, and ran off into the night after them. And he had just been telling me stories about Turkish villagers lynching truck drivers. I could do nothing but follow, albeit much less enthusiastically. You can read about these and other road adventures in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.

Suzy Hansen writes about these countries more than three decades later. There are few similarities with the lands that I traversed. Wars have been fought in some of them. You definitely can’t hitchhike through Iran and Afghanistan anymore.

Even Greece, from when I first visited, has changed profoundly. I lived in Greece for over fifteen years. In a sense, it’s my equivalent of Hansen’s Istanbul. I might have still been there if it hadn’t been for the economic crash that decimated the country. I had to get my sons out of there or they would have had no future.

Hansen writes of military coups in Turkey, of wars in Iran and Afghanistan, of economic destitution. We are aware of some of the surface information about some of these events. However, Hansen goes far beneath the surface. Her unique perspective as an American abroad and her talent for investigative journalism allow her to analyze the involvement and responsibility of the United States and its past and present foreign policies for these tragedies. Her conclusions carry a ring of truth, but it’s a somber bell tolling for irreparable losses and missed opportunities.

As I said, it is Hansen’s unique perspective that gives this book its authenticity. Not many writers would have been able to pull off this treatise on the ineffectiveness and decay of American foreign policy. It’s a valuable study of American empire-building gone wrong, and I highly recommend it to anyone thirsting for a bracing shot of truth in the midst of this poor sad deluded world.

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