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It is still not clear if the United States—a country formed in great measure by those who have themselves escaped vast catastrophes, famines, dictatorships, persecution—it is far from certain that the men and women of this nation so full of hope and tolerance, will be able to feel that same empathy towards the other outcast members of our species.
AFTER I HAD LIVED in Turkey for seven years, I visited a town called Soma, where two months earlier, a coal-mine fire had killed 301 men. Soma was located in western Turkey, slightly inland from the coastal city of Izmir, and to get there, my friend and I took a ferry from Istanbul to a town across the Sea of Marmara and rented a car. It was Ramadan then, and summer, and the townspeople, most of them observant and fasting for the holiday, moved slowly, as if they had been drugged. We stopped to eat cheese pide on benches by the seaside and watched shipping tankers as big and menacing as mountains glide too close to the shore. Women in head scarves strolled along the water, their children spinning away from and back to them like boomerangs skirting the pavement. I remembered how, when I first moved to the country, I had been surprised that someone wearing a head scarf would want to hang out at the beach. Everything surprised me then.
Turkey was a pleasant place to drive, its smooth roads lined with honey stands and olive oil kiosks and extremely tempting signs for Kangal puppy farms. (Kangals, native to Turkey, were sheep-guarding dogs that fought off wolves, so seeing them in innocent puppy form was like seeing a child before a lifetime of hard labor.) The Turkish highways, and the factories and depots that dominated them, always felt strangely like the East Coast of the United States. The entire country—even Istanbul—was not nearly as exotic as most people expected; it was not exotic anymore to me at all. By then I would also wonder whether the western Anatolian roads might have looked familiar because the Americans funded much of Turkey’s postwar reconstruction with Marshall Plan money, everything from its roads to its schools to its military bases. As we drove, I had that disconcerting sense of déjà vu that I often had when traveling through foreign countries, as if I had been there before.
We were heading to Soma to research an article for a magazine, but the catastrophe disturbed me for reasons beyond journalistic curiosity. After the fire, the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had visited Soma, and many townspeople protested in the streets because they blamed his government for the mine’s dilapidated condition. One of the prime minister’s men, wearing a dark, expensive suit, was photographed kicking a protestor on the ground. I remember thinking, The government is kicking a citizen in the town where 301 men have just been killed and families are mourning. The horror of Soma somehow seemed connected to the larger disintegration of the Middle East: the jihadists passing through Turkey on their way to Syria, the daily reports of terror, the disappearance of national borders. The question in my mind had stopped being how did it all fall apart, but when did it all begin.
Around that time, 2014, I noticed that both Western and Turkish friends had begun debating whether life had gotten better or worse. Terrorism, the refugee crisis, economic inequality, and climate change prompted these discussions, but sometimes the question came up around subjects more personal, such as the decision to have children. “Before, people had to worry about the bomb,” a friend argued. “It was much worse fifty years ago.” But I had the feeling now that our fears had become more personal, not of collective annihilation but of being torn limb from limb. Earlier that year, my friend, a photographer, offered me a print from her vast archive. There were photos of women in brightly printed dresses in Kenya, of teak trees in Bhutan, of a wedding couple dancing in India, and many were stunning, the sort of thing you might want on your wall. Yet I chose the stark, colorless desert photo of hundreds of tiny, faceless refugees sprawled across a hillside, crossing from Syria to Iraq, because in 2014, what other photo could you choose? It wasn’t a time of dancing.
In Turkey, one of those still-modernizing, ascendant countries, life was supposed to have gotten better. The Soma accident—in which it became clear that human life in Turkey had been substantially devalued—was the moment, for me, when this myth of progress collapsed. Is there life after Soma? someone spray-painted on the sidewalk outside my apartment window. Like my photograph, the phrase captured the mood. I went to Soma because, like everyone, I wanted to understand how it happened. I was interested in all the gory technical aspects: the methane gases and the way coal burned and the standard safety rules for coal mining. I expected the reasons to be specific to Turkey, specific to that company and to that coal mine. I had in mind a scientific excavation, and instead, as seemed to be common in the years I lived abroad, the excavation I ended up with was historical.
* * *
WHEN WE ARRIVED, Soma was still heavy with tragedy. Signs hung from the buildings that said OUR PAIN IS IMMENSE. The hotel clerk at the Linyit Otel eyed us warily, frowning when we said we were journalists. He, like many shop owners and businessmen in Soma, didn’t like the arrival of the foreigners, or the out-of-town activists, or the labor union radicals. “Don’t get mixed up in this stuff,” people would say to us, to one another. “Don’t cause trouble.”
My companion, Caner (pronounced Jahn-ehr), my oldest friend in Turkey, made my coming to Soma much easier—not only because he was a man but because he was Turkish. Caner could also see things in Turkey that I could not; often he could see things about the world that I could not. After I wrote the story about Soma, for example, Caner helped with the fact-checking, which for this magazine, The New York Times Magazine, was especially rigorous, if not, at times, insane. (A fact-checker and I once spent a half hour debating the difference between clubhouse and playhouse.) Caner joked with some wonder about the zeal of American journalism and I explained that the obsessiveness was not only about legal issues but about maintaining a kind of objectivity. In other words, I said, the truth. He laughed at me: “But that attitude about your objectivity is political in and of itself.”
Soma’s main street looked like many Turkish towns: well maintained and orderly. Freshly tended flower beds flanked the roads, World War I memorials—good old Atatürk in bronze—shone as if newly polished, people scrubbed the pavement outside their shops. During the summer evenings in Soma, men, and sometimes women, gathered in one part of the central tea garden, and women and children, and sometimes men, gathered in the section called the family salon, and everyone would sit for hours smoking and gossiping past midnight. Soma wasn’t a place where people went to bars, or rarely even out for dinner, but it had one fancy coffee shop with plush gray chairs, and one relatively expensive chain restaurant called Köfteci Ramiz. In these poor communities, there wasn’t money for much else beyond the home, but Turkish families supported one another reflexively; a miner would work his whole life just to build two-room houses for his three sons. I was a thirty-six-year-old unmarried childless woman living thousands of miles away from her family, and had long subscribed to typical Western ideals of individualism. But with seven years of distance from New York I had come to believe that it was the Turkish family that held Turkey together, it was the strongest thing. Soma had a wholesome Mayberry quality to it, a sense of conservatism and distaste for provocation. All around the main square the watchful pillars of the community stood at the ready: the mosques, the men’s teahouses, the mining company offices, the police, the ruling government’s AK Party office, the mayor’s hall, and, in the center of it all, in a large, black-reflector-windowed building, Türk-Is, the union that represented the coal miners of Soma.
We headed toward a narrow, pedestrianized street that was draped overhead with grapevines, which protected us from the miserable Aegean summer sun. A group of men gathered outside the office of DISK, a small, leftist labor union founded in the 1960s—one to which none of the miners belonged—that had set up shop in the aftermath of the disaster to teach the miners their rights. The union reps offered us plastic chairs, and some tea, and within minutes men began to sit down all around us, as if my appearance had been scheduled, which it had not.
Some of these men were the miners themselves. They had wizened faces, scrawny bodies as if undernourished, and bad teeth. I could tell which miners had been in the mine that day because they blinked constantly, as if unsure of where the next blow might come from. Turkey is a country where men are more important than women; sons more important than daughters; husbands more important than wives. In Turkey men were the warriors, the ones who had liberated the nation. It seemed suddenly that Turkey’s men had been defeated, and if the state treated even the men this way, I thought, then everyone had been flayed of whatever had once protected them from the elements.
* * *
A MINER NAMED AHMET told me the story of what happened on May 13, 2014, the worst industrial accident in Turkey’s ninety-year history. He and his wife, Tugba, lived in a three-room stone house in a village of Soma called Kayrakalti that was nestled amid cypress trees, fresh streams, and gentle, golden hills. Most of the 350 people of Kayrakalti used to farm Turkey’s famous Oriental tobacco, but around fifteen years ago, small farmers began to struggle, and so Ahmet went to work as a shearer-machine operator at a mine called Eynez, owned by Soma Holding.
When he arrived there that morning, Ahmet changed at his locker and put on his miner’s coat and boots lined with iron, and then he and seven hundred men began their descent into the mine. “Hadi! Hadi!” (Come on! Come on!) the supervisors yelled, always with an eye to speed, to production. When the men changed shifts, they said to one another, geçmis olsun, or get well soon, even hakkini helal et, which is a way Turks forgive one another, if they fear it is the last chance to do so. Ahmet’s gallery was in one of the deepest parts of the mine, where the coal was extracted by a giant shearer machine manned by forty men. Ahmet worked all day, until suddenly, around 3:10 p.m., the shearer machine stopped working. The coal conveyor belts stopped working; the electricity stopped working; everything stopped working. The power had gone out. Only the lights on the miners’ yellow helmets shone in the dark. Some electricians wearing gas masks arrived to tell them a cable exploded and a small fire had broken out. The miners in Ahmet’s gallery figured it would take only half an hour before someone signaled it was safe to leave.
After the first hour passed, they began to worry. Why hadn’t anyone come to talk to them? What was taking so long? Some of the men went to investigate what was happening, but they didn’t come back. There were no safe rooms in the mine, so instead the miners began to pray. Black smoke was being pushed into their gallery, from both ends. All the miners had masks attached to their belts, but few had faith in them. The masks were old, and they were encrusted with coal dust. Some miners put them on and breathed in dirt. Some masks did not work at all.
The smoke began to burn the men’s faces. Ahmet felt light-headed. Some knelt to the ground and stuck their faces in the mud, rubbing it over their skin, breathing it, slapping it into their mouths. They crouched and coughed, breathing that filthy coal-mine mud. Then men started to run, just to run anywhere. Ahmet saw Ibrahim, a portly engineer, sitting on the ground, his gas mask slung around his neck. He was breathing, but blood was coming out of his nose. A man named Ali sat under an old, useless conveyor belt. His body was cold. Ahmet realized what was happening: the miners were dying. He had no choice but to put on his mask and try to escape. As he passed, some of his friends turned toward him, arms stretched up, as if reaching for his hand.
When Ahmet climbed up a ladder to a second level, he saw bodies on a conveyer belt, as if the men had believed it would eventually carry them out. Other men lay on the ground. And near to them, also on the dirt floor, Ahmet saw dozens of rats that he knew were dead because their fangs were showing, their jaws open and stiff. Here we are, he thought, the brotherhood of rats and men.
Ahmet survived, eventually stumbling out of the mine into the klieg lights of rescue workers above. This was the image the country saw on television that day: thousands of families—fathers, mothers, wives, children, grandmothers—gendarmerie, state NGO rescue teams, police, and ambulance workers swarming around the entrances to the mine. People were screaming, pushing, crying, demanding answers. Every time a man emerged alive, coughing and black-faced, the crowd applauded. Every time a body was clumsily brought out on a stretcher, the great crowd wrenched and lurched forward, trying to see whether they could recognize anything at all: the cut of the hair, the curve of an eyebrow, the bend of a nose.
* * *
A MAN IN HIS SIXTIES named Tayfun, a representative from DISK, began telling the history of Soma. Most of the men had been tobacco farmers subsidized by and in service of the state-run company Tekel, which produced cigarettes popular among domestic consumers. For decades, Tekel sustained the farms of three million men and their families. Then, about forty years ago, the country opened its markets to foreign goods, including cigarettes. “We started to see on the streets your Parliaments there,” said a miner, smirking and pointing at the Parliament in my hand.
In the 2000s, at the behest of the IMF, and in line with the ethos of privatization at the time, the Erdogan government broke up Tekel, as they did so many state-run firms. The farmers lost their protection, and their jobs. “It happened step-by-step, it was slow,” Tayfun said. “The farmers had hopes. They tried tomatoes. They tried cucumbers. But it wasn’t enough. So the children of the farmers went into the mines.”
In Soma, as in many places, the mines were run by a private company that sold all of its coal to the government for a low price. The government was also responsible for monitoring the mines’ safety conditions. This codependent system made for zero accountability. The companies didn’t care much when the ceilings of the mines had shoddy supports, or when the gas sensors, meant to detect methane and carbon monoxide, didn’t work. Electric cables were old and hung haphazardly. There was no escape plan, or accident protocol, in the event of a fire.
The miners’ working conditions were terrible, too. Their bosses punished them with enthusiasm, insulted them, yelled at them, even cursed their mothers and sisters. It was always those same words, Hadi, hadi, hadi. Come on, come on, come on. All day long, hadi, hadi, hadi. If a miner rested, he’d hear it again. If something went wrong, hadi, hadi, hadi, back to work. The bosses would do whatever it took to get the most production out of the miners, and production stopped for nothing.
“So the first two pillars of the tragedy were the state and the company,” Tayfun continued, “and the triangle was completed with the union.”
I was startled by this. “The union?”
Other men joined in enthusiastically.
“I bet they already know you are here!” one said.
“They have spies everywhere. If we talk to you, they will tell,” said another.
“What do you mean they ‘will tell’?” I asked. “Who will they tell?”
“They will tell the union.”
“Not the company?”
“They are the same.”
The miners’ union with the black reflector windows, Türk-Is, had never advocated for better working conditions, or better pay, or even paid sick days for their miners. The miners were now convinced that everyone in the town was controlled by the union, which in turn meant the company, which in turn meant the government. The men called this thing the octopus.
“How did this union become this way?” I asked. “Was it always close to the state?”
“Of course,” one man named Aydin said. Aydin had the manner of a historian. “It was an American-style union. It was founded in the early years of the Turkish Republic”—in the 1950s—“with the help of the United States.” In other words, he suggested, this American influence, and America’s own labor history, had helped to create a union that did not protect Turkish workers and whose negligence had led to the deaths of 301 men.
Aydin told me this and, later on that day, the entire history of the United States’ and Turkey’s workers, in a matter-of-fact tone. American influence usually was not invoked with particular venom or outrage, but merely as a fact of history. Most foreigners were not emotional about it. The only person suddenly emotional was the American, me, because of course for the American nothing about this was matter-of-fact. Americans are surprised by the direct relationship between their country and foreign ones because we don’t acknowledge that America is an empire; it is impossible to understand a relationship if you are not aware you are in one. Those weeks in Soma, I heard about the way the United States had governed the world during the Cold War and after, and how its foreign policy shaped a course of history for Turkey that, even in small ways, led to the Soma tragedy. But of all the things I had discovered those days in that humble Turkish town, the resilience of my own innocence was the most terrifying.
As an adult I hadn’t had a strong sense of what life should look like. I rarely imagined my wedding day, or the man I would marry, the house I would live in, my financial status, or whether I would have children. It wasn’t always that way. My mother recently found piles of notebooks of mine from when I was a small child that were filled with plans for my future. I wrote out what I would do at every age—I was very ambitious: when I would get married and when I would have kids and when I would open a dance studio. This sort of planning stopped when I left my small hometown for college. The experience of going to a radically new place, as college was to me, completely upended my sense of the world and its possibilities, a transformation that happened again when I moved to New York, and again when I moved to Istanbul. All change is dramatic for provincial people. But the last move was the hardest. In Turkey, the upheaval was far more unsettling: after a while, I began to feel that the entire foundation of my consciousness was a lie.
For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans—who do not know that is what they are—and has a trajectory unique to the history of the United States. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. We can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us, the unfamiliar contours of ourselves. After I moved to Istanbul, I bought a notebook, and unlike the confident child I wrote down not plans but a question: Who do we become if we don’t become Americans, at least not in the way we always understood the word? I asked it because my years as an American abroad in the twenty-first century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance, the kind we see in movies; mine were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself.
* * *
IN 2007, I won a writing fellowship that sent Americans abroad for two years at a time. I had applied for it on a whim. No part of me expected to win the thing. I never thought I would leave New York. I was almost thirty and my friends were coupling off and would soon be making loads of money to support their firstborn. Even as they wished me congratulations, I detected a look of concern on their faces, as if I was crazy to leave all this, as if twenty-nine was a little too late to be finding myself. I had never even been to Turkey before.
The fellowship had been created in the 1920s by Charles Crane, a Russophile and scion of a plumbing-parts fortune, whose company’s in-house magazine, Valve World, published headlines such as “King Hussein of the Hejaz Enjoys the Crane Bathroom.” After World War I, according to his biographer David Hapgood, Crane concluded that “Americans and especially American policy-makers were not well enough informed about the rest of the world,” and began sending young men abroad for sometimes as long as ten years at a time as part of his Institute of Current World Affairs (ICWA). I suspected, given the nascent imperial era in which it was conceived, that the fellowship doubled as some sort of low-grade intelligence-gathering operation. After I moved to Turkey, and Turks began calling me a spy, an American friend suggested that maybe I was a postmodern spy—a spy who didn’t know she was a spy. “Well, it’s true in a way,” he said drily. “Like all foreign correspondents, you’re sending back information that, no matter how you intended it, will no doubt be used in the worst way imaginable.”
The objective of Crane’s fellowship in truth seems more benign. “Each man will be undertaking perhaps as difficult a task as there is, namely, that of interpreting a people, or a group, to itself and to others,” one of ICWA’s early prospectuses read in 1925. “Such a task requires … something beyond hard work and good intentions, something even beyond knowledge; sympathy, insight, the mellowness of time, the gift of expression are indispensable.” In those years, the United States was not yet a superpower. Despite its occupations of the Philippines and Cuba, and its long history of slavery, its image for many abroad was still that of the anti-imperialist, rebel nation, a country that had, for the most part, resisted the worst temptations of colonialism and imperialism, instead preaching an unprecedented kind of liberation theology for the world. When President Woodrow Wilson famously argued in his Fourteen Points speech that all citizens deserved the right to determine their own political fates, he helped inspire leaders from all over the former Ottoman Empire—Eleftherios Venizelos of Greece, Sa’ad Zaghlul of Egypt, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of Turkey—to fight for independence from foreign rule. In the 1910s, some perceived America as a messiah rescuing the world’s peoples from the evils of Europe.
Yet these foreigners overestimated Wilson’s knowledge of or interest in their part of the world. Wilson had no idea so many ethnicities and religions even existed. “You do not know and cannot appreciate the anxieties that I have experienced,” he admitted, “as a result of many millions of people having their hopes raised by what I have said.” Even forty years later, the Egyptian president and fervent nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser would remind the United States that though the Americans had forgotten the principles of Woodrow Wilson, the Egyptians had not.
Charles Crane understood those hopes. After the war, in early 1919, President Wilson had dispatched Crane and a theologian named Henry Churchill King to travel throughout the former Ottoman Empire. In the spirit of self-determination, Wilson wanted to learn what form of governance these newly liberated peoples desired for themselves. Neither Crane nor King had spent much time in the region before. In those years, the entire army of the United States was one-twentieth the size of Germany’s, and even smaller than Romania’s or Bulgaria’s, and it had no intelligence service in the Middle East, save for a single spy dispatched to Arabia during World War I as a Standard Oil speculator.
Crane and King interviewed thousands of people: Druze and Maronites, Turks and Armenians, Arabs and Jews. What they heard was that the people of the Middle East longed for independence, but they might accept the guardianship of the United States, a country about which they knew little except that it had not enslaved much of the world as had the British and the French. The great Turkish feminist Halide Edip Adivar said to Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) that the Americans were “the least harmful solution.” Many Arabs, Crane and King reported, even lauded America’s “genuinely democratic spirit” and believed that “America had no territorial or colonial ambitions.” Everywhere people told Crane they loved the American president and some even “knew the Fourteen Points by heart.”
Crane’s was the first survey of its kind. American government officials, however, ignored the findings of the King-Crane Commission, by then fully aware that the British and French had already hatched plans for carving up the region (known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement). Syria and Iraq became countries with haphazardly drawn lines running right through well-established communities, and French and British lackeys were installed as their rulers. President Wilson likely never read Crane’s report.
The events that followed were catastrophic: the Greek-Turkish population exchange, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the dispossession of the Kurds and the Armenians, the subjugation of the Arabs, the rise of dictatorships, and more than a hundred years of turmoil that still lasts to this day. When the King-Crane report was later revealed in Editor & Publisher, the editors wrote that American policy makers’ disregard for the report’s findings was “an awesome spectacle … of how an uninformed democracy might precipitate the gravest consequences.” They went on: “Wonderment has been expressed by Turk, Greek, Arab, Armenian, Jew, Syrian, and Druze, not to mention Europeans, as to what has become of the American Mission and its report, which they all dreamed would bring tranquility and a new order to the troubled Near East.” Middle Easterners never understood what happened to this “Great Hope.”
The exception was Turkey. Whereas Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians, and Egyptians would still find themselves tethered to colonial rulers, the Turks won their independence from the Western powers and rebuilt their country themselves, an achievement about which they would never fail to remind me. Only one more world war later, Turkey, showered with funds by the nascent American empire, began to reconstruct its fragile identity in vague imitation of its benefactor. I learned about the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in college; I knew then that millions of dollars had gone to two countries called Greece and Turkey. But when I moved to Istanbul, at age twenty-nine, I had never questioned whether these funds had been anything other than some benevolent American act. In my mind, the scene played out like a rich man in town building a new school; the American president showed up with a sack of money and dropped it on a desk, no strings attached, and the townsfolk cheered with gratitude.
As Crane’s organization had described, there is a difference between knowledge and that “beautiful place beyond it.” But what would I learn by leaving America that was beyond good intentions, beyond sympathy, beyond the luxury of time? What else was there? I had hardly studied World War I. I had no idea that the people of the Middle East had been feeling betrayed by Americans for a hundred years. I had no idea that they had ever thought so highly of the United States in the first place.
A young Turkish artist who had just returned from a decade in New York once said to me, during a brief hopeful era in Turkey, “Western history is a farce and everyone knows it. Perhaps we can take the values that Americans have abused for material gain and do something better with them.” I didn’t tell him that most Americans would have no idea what he was talking about—that I, to some degree, also did not—but by then that feeling of newly recognized ignorance was one I knew well. You cannot grow up in the second half of the twentieth century in the United States of America and live abroad in the twenty-first and not feel it all the time. If I learned something about Turkey, I received it, as unsophisticated but curious people do, as a happy addition to my mind. But if I learned something about America in Turkey—or later in Egypt or Greece or Afghanistan or Iran—it felt like a disruption. 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.
* * *
IN THE WEEKS before my departure from New York, I spent hours explaining Turkey’s international relevance to my bored loved ones, no doubt deploying the cliché that Istanbul was the bridge between East and West. At first, my family was not exactly thrilled for me; New York had been vile enough in their minds. My brother’s reaction to the news that I had won this generous fellowship was something like “See? I told you she was going to get it,” as if it had been a threat he’d been warning the home front about. My mother asked whether this meant I didn’t want the pretty luggage she’d bought me for Christmas, imagining it wasn’t fit for the Middle East, and like most women of her generation quietly hoorayed her daughter’s adventure. My father, who feared that Islamic terrorists would soon bomb the entire Eastern Seaboard into the Atlantic, stayed up one night watching Pope Benedict’s historic 2006 visit to Istanbul on CNN. I woke up to an e-mail time-stamped 3:00 a.m. that read: “Did you know that Turkey is 99 percent Muslim? Are you out of your mind?”
It is astonishing to me now, but I remember that I, the New Yorker who believed herself so different from her origins, replied calmly: “In Turkey, they restrain Islam. They make the women take their head scarves off and put them in a box before they are allowed to enter university campuses”—as if the women themselves did not mind this humiliating and inconvenient experience, as if I would ever deposit a precious piece of my wardrobe into some policeman’s cardboard box. At that time, Western thinkers heralded Turkey as the one successful Muslim country, and its secularist founder, Atatürk, as the kind of dictator even a liberal could love. I wasn’t just trying to reassure my father; apparently I feared Islam in those days, too. We had all lost our marbles after September 11.
I was inflicting myself on Turkey without good or sentimental reason. I had no connections to the country, but then again I had no connections to anywhere. I was American, two times removed from any European provenance or familial history. I once read that children who grow up hearing beloved family narratives have stronger senses of direction in life; for example, kids who know how their grandmother escaped the Holocaust with diamonds sewn into her jacket, or how their grandfather integrated the high school football team, find it easier to imagine their own life’s purpose. Those without a narrative feel anxious and insecure. There is no cultural self to find, no spicy-smelling kitchen in which to rediscover distant cultural memories, no crimes or mistakes to learn from and redeem, no historical events to compare to current ones. My immigrant grandparents did what the United States of America told them to do: wipe the slate clean. The price of entrance was to forget the past. I was moving to Turkey in part because I had nowhere else to go.
Where I was from, few people chose to live abroad; many didn’t even go on vacation. My town was located by the Jersey Shore, two hours from New York, in a county both working-class and filthy rich that would one day turn red for Donald Trump. My extended family operated an inexpensive public golf course; I worked there in summers as the hot dog girl; politics in my life were limited to small-businessman woes and prejudices: taxes and immigrants and not much else. My town, populated almost entirely by the descendants of white Christian Europeans, had few connections to the outside world, perhaps by choice, and so their resentments and fears festered with little reason to ever be expressed to anyone but one another. I don’t remember much talk of foreign affairs, or of other countries, rarely even of New York, which loomed like a terrifying shadow above us, the place Americans went either to be mugged or to think they were better than everyone else. That was my sense of the outside world: where Americans went to be hurt or to hurt others. When I got into an elite college, I took this small-town defensiveness with me, but slowly discovered that the world was actually kaleidoscopic, full of possibilities.
So, of course, New York became the dream, the land of meaningful pursuits, a chance for absolution of my small-town sins. After college, I moved there and eventually got a job as a journalist at a weekly newspaper, The New York Observer, which was obsessed with New York. The newspaper was a formative journalistic experience, mainly because of its fatherly editor, Peter Kaplan, who wanted nothing more than for all of his kids to succeed. The month I started, in August 2004, the Republican Convention had come to New York. The Republicans’ arrival felt like an insult to the city’s liberals, those who had voted for Al Gore and were against the war in Iraq. As reporters, we crashed the parties and made fun of the rubes. But to me they didn’t look much different from the New Yorkers. The Republicans were the world’s warriors, another power elite. They had come to a city that not-so-secretly celebrated and worshipped the winners, no matter their deeds.
By then, New York had morphed, thanks to the Internet, into a cocaine-and-steroids version of itself. Working in the media offered a measure of civic responsibility and literary expression, but mostly, I discovered that for many it offered a somewhat respectable path to the new Internet-based celebrity. Young people at that time seemed desperate to be recognized by an external force, something beyond conventional notions of fame. The writer Alison Lurie compared this “celebrity complex” to the process by which totalitarian regimes render entire groups or ethnicities “nonpersons”; instead, in the “so-called advanced democratic societies,” she wrote, people did this to themselves. Only a few years after September 11, we had in fact become less introspective. The compassionate efforts to understand our new, uncertain world were replaced by an ever more certain set of ways to manage it—money, marriage, brownstone, children, organic market, Pilates—all of it fueled by a sleazily exuberant stock market. During that Gilded Age—perhaps the last true Gilded Age—poor people mysteriously disappeared as if in some dirty war, banks replaced any normal shop or café or restaurant on every block, there was a weird obsession with food, which—we didn’t know then—we would all soon be taking photos of and posting online. Social media didn’t even exist, yet I already knew aspiring writers and ordinary folks who lived to be mentioned on one of several New York websites; it was so obvious already that appearing in the print newspaper didn’t bring the same addictive thrill. Real life had taken on not only the speed and amnesia of the Internet, but the mania and madness of Wall Street, as the writer Frank Rich put it at the time. September 11 had been just another dip in the market. During the most catastrophic years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, New York threw a giant party.
There was a terrible fissure between this surreal New York and the reality outside of it: the invasion of Iraq, this new terror war. The frantic scrambling to read books on the Taliban and Sayyid Qutb and Islam itself—which seemed to many not one of the world’s three main monotheistic faiths but a newly discovered alien philosophy—didn’t continue after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t remember a whole lot of people buying books about Iraq at all, except for the ones that made the case for invasion, like Republic of Fear and The Threatening Storm. By 2005, the wars disappeared from television. Had the media become so elitist, so dominated by Harvard and Yale graduates, that none of us knew the soldiers fighting, didn’t feel impassioned by the wars? That very process I’d longed for when I moved to New York, the severing of my small-town identity, had only resulted in a new kind of ignorance, a disconnection from the rest of the country. To some sophisticates I met in New York, my apparent provinciality had been a kind of exoticism; I was a survivor of those horrible American places they glimpsed on Fox News. But New Yorkers were ignorant about them, too. And realizing this, suddenly, the New Yorkers I had so long admired and envied seemed to be the provincial ones—if they didn’t understand their own country, I wasn’t sure any of us could possibly understand the world.
The absence of genuine protest against the war in Iraq was explained away by the absence of a draft, as if our consciences would have been ignited if only someone else struck the match. What we didn’t know to ask was how we would be feeling or acting if we knew Iraqis. Not “knew” them as in calling an Iraqi on the phone, but knew them as in their history, their experience, their history and experience with the United States. I do not remember having a sense of the Iraqi people, of an Iraqi family, of an Iraqi man, a normal Iraqi man—a doctor or a postman or a teacher, like someone you grew up with. Even if I did, I am simply not sure my brain would have known to test itself with the potential horrors that might befall that man: if this person was ripped apart by a cluster bomb, tortured in a prison, shot at an intersection while driving, his brains blown apart, his leg torn from his side, his wife and daughter and son screaming and crying in pain, all because of your country’s military, your government, and because of you. Empathy was infrastructurally impossible. We couldn’t imagine a real war, a war that encompassed our lives, a war occupying our favorite Brooklyn street of restaurants, a war that slung up barricades and checkpoints and manned the corners with scary men in armored suits dripping with weapons and screaming in a language we didn’t understand. There simply was no way for the American mind, perhaps the white American mind, to imagine these things—not the horror, and not the responsibility—and so we did not.
For journalists this failure of imagination had larger repercussions, of course, because we informed the public, and because as the so-called liberal journalists we were extremely arrogant. We revered our supposedly unique American standards of objectivity, but we couldn’t account for the fact—were not modest enough to know—that an objective American mind is first and foremost still an American mind. In being objective, we were actually leaving our judgment vulnerable to centuries of ingrained prejudices and black holes of knowledge. We failed to interrogate not only our sources but ourselves. I was surrounded by the most progressive-minded people in the country, and that wasn’t enough. The problem wasn’t politics.
To me, New York’s beautiful diversity had been the best life America had to offer. But I knew there was something wrong with the way we were living. We walked around with this nagging sense that something had happened to us, but I didn’t know what and didn’t know why. That was one of the reasons I applied for the fellowship; I knew that my own confusion had to do with some central unawareness of the world, the kind that would only be reinforced, time and again, by the very thing I had once loved about New York, a sophistication built by an army of defense mechanisms. At the time, I never paid much attention to the history of Charles Crane, or why he had gone to Ottoman Turkey, or the significance of his King-Crane report, but I understood that I had been chosen for the fellowship for a reason somewhat in line with his philosophy—because the committee wanted to see what would happen if they dropped an ignorant person into a foreign place. I doubt that Charles Crane imagined that, in 2007, almost a hundred years after America’s first world war, an American would be as ignorant as me.
I told everyone I chose Turkey because I wanted to learn about the Islamic world. The secret reason I wanted to go was that my favorite writer, James Baldwin, had lived in Istanbul in the 1960s on and off for ten years. I had seen a PBS documentary about Baldwin that said he felt more comfortable as a black, gay man in Istanbul than in Paris or New York. When I heard that, it made so little sense to me, sitting in my Brooklyn apartment, that a space opened in the universe. I couldn’t believe that New York would be more illiberal than a place like Turkey, because I couldn’t conceive of how prejudiced New York and Paris were in the 1950s, and because I thought that as you went east, life degraded into the past, the opposite of progress. The idea of Baldwin in Turkey somehow placed America’s race problem, and America itself, in a mysterious and tantalizing international context. I took a chance that Istanbul might be the place where the secret workings of history would be revealed.
My interest in Baldwin had begun in part because he was the first person to explain who I was: a white American with a lot to learn. Americans have no sense of “tragedy,” as he wrote in Nobody Knows My Name, and he must have been right because I had no idea what he meant. Sense of tragedy—what was that? And what would it mean if we did have a sense of tragedy? How would we live our lives? I couldn’t change because I didn’t know what was wrong with me in the first place. Baldwin had counseled a surprisingly simple and bewildering antidote to America’s race problem, to white people’s absence of tragedy and fear of death and irredeemable “innocence”—his remedy was love. The solution struck me as a facile punt, an admission that he had no solution, something, strangely, I thought was his duty to provide. The world’s problems in 2001, when I first read Baldwin’s books, seemed far too complex to be solved by an emotion. Love seemed too obvious, too easy, a conclusion that in and of itself was proof that the love Baldwin was talking about didn’t come easily to me at all.
Maybe Baldwin knew white people would never understand him. But as Americans act out their despair in increasingly dangerous ways in the twenty-first century, Baldwin’s observations from the twentieth began to sound more and more prophetic:
“This is the way people react to the loss of empire,” he once wrote, “for the loss of an empire also implies a radical revision of the individual identity.”
So, my question: Who do we become if we don’t become Americans?
* * *
THIS IS A BOOK about an American living abroad in the era of American decline. When Baldwin, or Ernest Hemingway, or Henry James wrote from abroad, America had not yet achieved its full imperial status. The 1960s ushered in a golden era of global intellectual engagement—Robert Stone, Gore Vidal, Paul Theroux, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, among others—but even that would paradoxically fade in the age of globalization. As America, growing more powerful abroad, turned more inward-looking at home, so, too, did the going-abroad books, so many of them celebrating the transformation of one’s self, and extolling a conception of the world as a meditation and wellness center for the spiritually challenged.
An American going abroad during the era of American decline encounters an entirely different set of circumstances. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many more wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world, absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. As an American abroad now, you do not have the same crazy, smiling confidence. You do not want to speak so loud. You feel always the vague risk of breaking something. In Turkey and elsewhere, in fact, I felt an almost physical sensation of intellectual and emotional discomfort, trying to grasp a reality for which I had no historical or cultural understanding. I would go, as a journalist, to write a story about Turkey or Greece or Egypt or Afghanistan, and inevitably someone would tell me some part of our shared history—theirs with America—of which I knew nothing. I would feel as though I could not write that story, just as I could not write the story of the coal miners, because when I asked “What happened?” I was more often than not met with a response that spanned sixty years. And if I didn’t know this history, then what kind of story did I plan to tell?
In so many countries, I could not shake my own reflexive assumptions. No matter how well I knew the predatory aspects of capitalism, I still perceived Turkey’s and Greece’s economic advances as progress, a kind of maturation. No matter how deeply I understood America’s manipulation of Egypt for its own foreign policy aims, I had never considered—could not grasp—how these policies may have affected individual lives beyond resentment and anti-Americanism. No matter how much I believed that no American was fit for nation-building, I saw Americans’ good intentions in Afghanistan, even as a more cynical reality stared me in the face. Even when I disagreed with America’s policies, I always believed in our inherent goodness, in my own. I would never have admitted it, or thought to say it, but looking back, I know that deep in my consciousness I thought that America was at the end of some evolutionary spectrum of civilization, and everyone else was trying to catch up.
In a sense my learning process abroad was threefold: I was learning about foreign countries; I was learning about America’s role in the world; I was also slowly understanding my own psychology and temperament and prejudices—the very things that had made it so impossible to acquire worldly knowledge in the first place. American exceptionalism did not only define the United States as a special nation among lesser nations, it demanded that all Americans believe they, too, were born superior to others, a concept of goodness that requires the existence of evil for its own sustenance. How could I, as an American, understand a foreign people, when unconsciously I did not extend the most basic faith to other people that I extended to myself? This was a limitation that was beyond racism, beyond prejudice, and beyond ignorance. This was a kind of nationalism so insidious that I had not known to call it nationalism; this was a self-delusion so complete that I could not see where it began and ended, could not root it out, could not destroy it.
Yet we are living at a time when people are questioning—trying to question—their national identities in new ways. After the death of Margaret Thatcher, the actor Russell Brand (during his more serious years) published an essay about once catching a glimpse of the elderly Thatcher in some gardens along London’s Strand. For Brand, as a young boy, Thatcher was the “headmistress of our country,” the woman who taught her children that “there is no such thing as society” and that they should “ignore the suffering of others.” Brand then did what in retrospect was the logical next step for a child of Thatcher: he considered her effect on his own mind. “What is more troubling,” he writes, “is my inability to ascertain where my own selfishness ends and her neo-liberal inculcation begins.” Part of the reason Brand felt compelled to question the Thatcher way of life was that so much of her economic philosophy had been recently upended by the financial crisis. But the remarkable thing was that the effect of the crisis on Brand’s country had actually compelled him to question himself. He was not immune; he was not innocent, either.
Americans have in recent years been stumbling through the twilight of the American century, but largely without Brand’s self-knowledge. Historians and pundits struggle to explain disturbing phenomena: Donald Trump, a flailing foreign policy, the rise of inequality, daily shootings, the tragic plea “Black lives matter.” Incipient decline might account for the collective anxiety gripping the country, the fears and rages, what is, in the end, a desperate confusion. For the first time since World War II, the lives of American citizens, who have long been self-sufficient and individualistic—the masters of their own fates—have become entwined with the fate of their nation in a palpable way. It is also perhaps the first time Americans are confronting a powerlessness that the rest of the world has always felt, not only within their own borders but as pawns in a larger international game. Globalization, it turns out, has not meant the Americanization of the world; it has made Americans, in some ways, more like everyone else.
In academia, there has been a call to internationalize history or, in the words of the historian Erez Manela, “to examine how the United States has been reflected in the world, in the histories of other societies,” which suggests that entire nations—billions of lives—cannot be studied without considering the intervening history of the United States. A profound moral event has taken place, something bigger than what is cheerily reduced to McDonald’s signs in Shanghai, or disparaged as mere anti-Americanism. Anti-Americanism is not some bitter mental disorder inflamed by conspiracy theories and misplaced furies and envy. It is a broken heart, a defensive crouch, a hundred-year-old relationship, bewilderment that an enormous force controls your life but does not know or love you.
Yet just as black American writers once desperately urged their white friends to come to terms with their violent but intimate relationship, foreigners have been constantly asking Americans to listen to them. The Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid and the American author Jay McInerney gave a talk in New York in 2012. During the question-and-answer period, an audience member joked that the best solution to the anti-American protests in Pakistan would be to give them all green cards to the United States. The audience member was very proud of this punch line. Of course, most Americans believe that everyone in the world wants to live in the United States. These were the sorts of things that seemed like obvious, factual truths to Americans. But then Hamid pointed out something that would be an obvious, factual truth to a Pakistani. He said: “There’s an America that exists inside the borders of the United States, which is a very different entity from the America that projects its force outside the United States … There are kind of two Americas.”
I kept encountering this idea of the two Americas. The Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie once wrote that the case of John Hersey’s Hiroshima epitomized this divided existence. For Shamsie, there was one America, “which decides what price some other country’s civilian population must pay for its victory,” as well as another America, the one of John Hersey, “the America of looking at the destruction your nation has inflicted and telling it like it is.” Shamsie wanted to know, however, where were all the John Herseys of today, the American writers or novelists making sense out of, say, the war on terror, the dirty wars in Latin America, or the oil-and-weapons obligations of the Middle East? She couldn’t find many young novelists who even acknowledged American power in the world. Shamsie recounted an experience that I have heard time and time again from foreign friends: “I was startled to discover that when I said I was from Pakistan I was met with blankness—as if, in 1991, no one knew that through the 1980s Pakistan had been America’s closest ally in its proxy war against the Soviets.”
After September 11, Shamsie assumed that, of course, Americans “would now see its stories bound up with the stories of other places.” But they didn’t. Why was it that the people of the most powerful country in the world—powerful because of its influence inside so many foreign nations—did not feel or care to explore what that influence meant for even their own American identities? Where was this shared sense of fate that we had unilaterally imposed on Pakistanis, Iraqis, Afghans? Shamsie had grown up in Pakistan in the 1980s, always knowing, as she puts it, that thinking about her country’s politics meant thinking about America’s history and politics. “So in an America where fiction writers are so caught up in the idea of America in a way that perhaps has no parallel with any other national fiction, where the term Great American Novel weighs heavily on writers,” she writes, “why is it that the fiction writers of my generation are so little concerned with the history of their own nation once that history exits the fifty states?” Her question echoed an experience I had in 2012 when I met an Iraqi man. Over the course of our conversation I asked him what Iraq was like in the 1980s and 1990s, when he was growing up. He smiled. “I am always amazed when Americans ask me this,” he said. “How is it that you know nothing about us when you had so much to do with what became of our lives?”
The historian Jackson Lears wrote that Americans of the early twentieth century displayed a “dependence on empire for their prosperity, for their racial, social, and even moral identity as a people, and for the power that undergirded their dreams of personal and national regeneration.” If the decline of the American empire may require, as Baldwin suggests, a radical revision of the individual identity, perhaps Americans have to more deeply understand what that imperial identity was in the first place. If America was an empire, was there even a difference between “home” and “abroad”? Was it not all the same kingdom? Were we not locked in the same intimate relationship? Was not their pain very much ours? Might this relationship even be one, as Baldwin said, of love?
This book is by no means a comprehensive exploration of this subject, nor of all the countries I write about. Many historians and scholars and novelists—many more of them non-American—have chronicled the story of the American empire in far more expansive books. What follows are merely my reflections on going abroad in the twenty-first century and my attempts to see foreign countries clearly—ultimately, to see my own. Even though I use mostly foreigners’ voices and writings in this book, I never asked them, essentially, “Why do you hate us?” They have been answering that question in complex and passionate ways for decades. The onus, I felt, was on me to catch up.
If I didn’t, I would never be able to make sense of letters like this one publicly posted on Facebook on the anniversary of the Iraq War in 2013, by the Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who, as of this writing, is still inside an Egyptian jail:
To My American Friends:
Ten years later and I still can’t find the words to explain my anger to you, we talk about it a lot in Arabic, it is forever part of our context, the horror, the madness, the futility of it all, in fact it has become such a part of who we are that we need an anniversary to realize how epic in proportion it was. Ten years on and it still seems possible for you to debate and talk about it in polite or boring language. I’ll never understand you and you’ll never understand me.
I know all of you (my friends) tried to stop it, I know millions more tried, I understand it wasn’t done in your interests, you are not the state, you are not the war, you are not the corporations. But still I’m angry at each and every one of you, maybe it’s irrational, maybe you as individuals hold no responsibility, maybe it’s a reaction to all the cheesy manufactured soul searching forced down our throats in which the horror of it all is stripped down to the suffering of American soldiers and American families, soldiers who died, soldiers who lost a limb, soldiers who were shocked at what they were capable of, soldiers who waited until they practiced the killing and torture themselves to realize that something was wrong. Murderers and pillagers who think the world owes them an apology, heroes even in the eyes of many of the millions who tried to stop the war. Maybe I include you, my friends, in my anger because you care, for what is the point of being angry at those who already made a commitment not to be human?
The scary part is I’m many steps removed from the war and its atrocities, I wonder at the anger felt by Iraqis who had to live every day of it? Until recently I wasn’t just steps removed, I was an accomplice just like you, the battleships moving through the Suez Canal were enough to push us to revolution in just ten years. Ask any activist who experienced the 2003 antiwar protests in Tahrir and they’ll tell you it started then, for you see we couldn’t live with the thought that Iraqis would look at us with anger in their hearts. Our incomplete and much-abused revolutions are our gift to you, join it and revolt now, for nothing short of revolution will ever redeem you.
“I’ll never understand you and you’ll never understand me.” Was that true? If we Americans admired the Egyptians for their revolutionary spirit from afar, if so many of us envied their passion and their commitment to a cause, then I wonder why we did not feel connected to Egyptians when clearly, in some way, they, like the rest of the world, felt inherently, inextricably, passionately connected to us.
That day I visited the Turkish coal miners, asking over and over those same American questions—“What happened here?” “How did this happen?” “What went wrong?” “How did your country fail to protect you?”—Ahmet, the survivor, interrupted me. A hush fell over the room, not because they thought him rude but because they all viewed me the same way: as a curiosity.
“But, ma’am, I have a question for you,” he said. “Why didn’t you come before the fire? Why didn’t you think of us before?”
Copyright © 2017 by Suzy Hansen