It’s remarkable, given the propensity of American officials, journalists and academics to refer to other nations and cultures as immature and underdeveloped, how frequently and consistently Americans themselves are described as children, by both foreign authors and American writers themselves. “We have not grown up enough to accept that America has never been innocent at all,” the novelist Steve Erikson wrote in 1995 in an essay about American rage. In Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903), a character says of his American relatives, “They’re children; they play at life!”
James’s novel follows the middle-aged Lambert Strether as he is sent to Paris from Woollett, Massachusetts in order to retrieve Chad Newsome, the wayward son of his fiancée and heir to the family fortune. Woollett is a town that suffers from a paucity of opinions, the veneration of material success, the suspicion of foreigners and the conviction that the local way of seeing things is the only and the best. Strether, however, quickly leaves Woollett behind, so much so that he bungles his assignment. Far from being an American ambassador, whose mission is to convince Chad to abandon his French mistress, return home and resume his proper American role and identity, Strether becomes a double agent, an advocate for that mistress and for the precious freedom and insight Chad has acquired abroad.
In James’s work, Americans are transformed by travel to Europe (which is as far abroad as they ever go). They arrive burdened by ignorance and often wealth, and inevitably they make life-changing mistakes. The characters who learn to “see” the world as it is become adults. In one of the most memorable exchanges in The Ambassadors, Strether bursts out at a young American artist: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether is speaking out of regret for his own missed life, the life he might have led if he had had the courage to settle abroad himself. The knowledge acquired by Strether and other Jamesian travelers is precious, and it always comes at a steep price: In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer loses her freedom; in The Wings of the Dove, Milly Theale loses her life. Strether sacrifices his own engagement back home and the chance of a new attachment in Europe. Yet these characters are changed so utterly that their lost innocence is what becomes foreign to them, impossible to pine for, irrelevant.
Suzy Hansen is the anti-James. Her Notes on a Foreign Country, published last summer, is a remarkably glum account of being an expatriate, unlikely to inspire many young Americans to head out into the world. Hansen’s years abroad in the 21st century “were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance, the kind we see in movies,” she writes early on in the book; instead, they “were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself.”
In 2007, Hansen, then a 29-year-old reporter at the New York Observer, was awarded a fellowship for young Americans wanting to undertake research projects abroad. She decided to move to Istanbul, partly because James Baldwin, her favorite writer, had lived there in the Sixties. Once in Turkey, however, she bumped up against her own ignorance about American interventionism. To Hansen’s great confusion and discomfiture, Turkish friends kept mentioning the ways in which the U.S. had shaped their country’s politics, military and economy.
The foreign country in the title of Hansen’s book, then, is mainly the United States, which she learned to see for the first time, with a painful clarity, from Turkey and several other countries in the region. In one of the most evocative passages in the book, she describes growing up on the Jersey Shore. Life in her hometown, the aptly-named Wall, is inward-looking, rooted, circumscribed:
We went to church on Sundays until church time was usurped by soccer games. I do not remember a strong sense of civic engagement; not with the community, or for the environment, or for poor people. I had the feeling, rather, that people could take things from you if you didn’t stay vigilant. Our goals remained local: homecoming queen, state champs, a scholarship to Trenton State, cookouts in the backyard. The lone Chinese kid studied hard and went to Berkeley; the Indian went to Yale. Black people never came to Wall. The world was white, Christian; the world was us.
Hansen argues that her lack of awareness about America’s role in the world was structural, intentional—an ignorance that many Americans, particularly white Americans, wear like mental armor, allowing them to believe, against all evidence, that our political and military interventions abroad are always necessary, successful and well-intentioned. “I would never have admitted it, or thought to say it,” Hansen explains, “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.” Hence, she assumed that in Istanbul, she would assess how well Turkey was meeting certain U.S. standards (“democratization,” “modernization”); she would also think about “solutions” to Islam, because “that’s what Americans always do.”
Hansen occasionally mentions The Fire Next Time (1963), in which Baldwin describes the willful, violent blindness of white Americans, and their determination not to face “reality—the fact that life is tragic.” Baldwin himself left America for France and Turkey because he found life there false and unbearable, a physical and psychological assault. At least African Americans, he wrote, possess “the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace.” Hansen read this passage long before moving to Turkey, but one of her points is how often we can know something but not really accept it. She writes: “Even when I disagreed with America’s policies, I always believed in our inherent goodness, in my own.”
From Istanbul, Hansen traveled to report from Greece, Egypt and Afghanistan, only to discover from wry, patient locals that the crisis each country is currently undergoing can be explained by a history in which U.S. intervention figures prominently. In Afghanistan, she attends a Fourth of July party at the American embassy. There is a billboard outside the embassy that reads: “the u.s. embassy would be grateful if any of our friends who have information on terrorist activity or threats to please come to this gate.” There is a five-by-seven-foot American flag made out of cupcakes. The red, white and blue balloons keep popping from the heat, setting the crowd of Afghans and Americans, fearful of snipers, on edge. General David Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador dodge difficult questions from Afghan guests and deliver platitudes.
This is all very well observed. A different sort of writer would have made something barbed and darkly funny of this scene. Hansen seems headed in that direction, but instead she stops, on cue, to wring her hands: “Those bland, company-man words. In Kabul these words sounded criminal. These were loveless, soulless words. How could we speak to Afghans like this? … No one believed in the words they were saying, and yet this language was about real things: flesh and death and war, people’s homelands, and their children.”
It strikes me as a luxury and nearly an affront to be as sentimental and naïve as this. It’s not that we shouldn’t sympathize with Afghans and others—it’s that such an expression of sympathy, in which one’s own guilt and shock takes center stage, isn’t worth much. Meanwhile, many of the people I’ve met out in the world who are really up against it—who by circumstance or choice live terribly exposed—wear the risks they run matter-of-factly, the bearers of what Baldwin calls an “ironic tenacity.” They are knowing, daring, uncomplaining. I guarantee you they waste no time being shocked by the platitudes of U.S. ambassadors.
Hansen notes that when Albert Camus visited New York in 1946, he wrote in his journal that America was a “country where everything is done to prove that life isn’t tragic.” Camus held that “one must reject the tragic after having looked at it, not before.” Hansen does the looking but not the rejecting. She remains transfixed by the tragic and her own response to it, casting pretty standard culture shock as emotional catastrophe. Her Turkish lessons are “soul-shattering.” In Cairo, she is “lonely and clumsy, wreaking havoc on things I knew nothing about.” In Afghanistan, “it was my mere existence, I felt, that did damage enough. I wanted nothing else but to withdraw myself.”
When I read this, a phrase of another writer immediately came to mind. “I hate tragedy,” wrote Waguih Ghali, a penniless alcoholic and suicidal Egyptian who, in self-imposed exile after Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in 1956, wrote one of my favorite novels. Beer in the Snooker Club contains passages that still make me laugh out loud. Egypt, the Arab country I lived in for many years, has one of the best and darkest strains of humor I’ve ever encountered. It does not come natural to me but I have often witnessed its gift, the way it can lift the pall of fear and death. It’s the laughter of survivors, balanced right on the edge of hope and hopelessness.
Hansen and I are both middle-class white American women, of about the same age, who worked as journalists in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. What first intrigued me about Notes on a Foreign Country is the way her experience seemed a mirror image of mine: full of parallels, yet almost perfectly reversed. Her description of Wall is as exotic to me as Istanbul was to her.
My parents were unhappy children of the Los Angeles suburbs who grew into well-read hippies. In 1970, right after graduating college, they headed to Europe—following Proust to Paris, and Joyce to Trieste. After several failed attempts to relocate to Europe, they finally managed to settle our family in Rome when I was six. Nine years later my father joined the State Department and began working on programs that promoted English-language learning. One of his postings was in Cairo.
Some of my earliest memories are of our yearly transatlantic flights home, of the endless hum of the airplane engine. Back home my sister and I marveled at ice-cream sundaes, multiplexes, shopping malls and pristine empty summer sidewalks. Every summer we made some momentous pop-culture discovery: the music of Whitney Houston; tie-dye t-shirts; roller coasters.
When I went off to college, my father gave me a copy of In Search of Lost Time, thereby ensuring I would be a comparative literature major like him and would head to France after graduation. In my early twenties I moved to Paris and then to Cairo, just as the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq for the second time. Egypt hadn’t figured at all in my readings or my imagination, and I had to catch up on the spot; reading novelists like Naguib Mahfouz, Waguih Ghali and Sonallah Ibrahim was another way to get to know the country. I ended up staying in Egypt, against all my expectations, for twelve years.
I witnessed the eighteen days of extraordinary protests that ended with the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak; the months of protests and violence and back-room deals that followed; the election of an Islamist government; the toppling of thatgovernment and the massacre of at least eight hundred of its supporters; and then the restoration of “order,” meaning a repressive military regime that has detained and tortured tens of thousands of people, and which my government supports.
Since 2014, I have lived in Morocco. My parents have retired to Northern California. They are happy there. Now, every summer, I make the transatlantic flight with my husband and son. We marvel at the multiplexes and perfect sidewalks; at the price of produce at the farmer’s markets; at all the homeless people and the way no one litters.
Despite our entirely different upbringings, I have some of the same reflexes as Hansen. Almost certainly, one of the reasons her naïveté irritates me is because I fight the tendency myself. I smile too much and like to be considered “nice.” I over-tip and insist on carrying my own bags. I am also, despite all my travels, sheltered—privileged by my race, class and passport—and sometimes embarrassingly earnest. When Donald Trump was elected I was distraught at the idea that he would set foot in the White House, a building I didn’t know I had any particular feeling about until then.
Hansen presents Notes on a Foreign Country as the antithesis of the Eat Pray Love variety of self-discovery tale. And yet hers is also a journey of individual enlightenment. It may no longer be fashionable to speak with authority or to find pleasure abroad—but the American preoccupation with personal growth is unwavering. Hansen presents her biases as representative, nearly universal; and yet she insists on treating the U.S. role in the world as her personal discovery and burden.
“American innocence never dies,” Hansen writes in the book’s final pages. “That pain in my heart is my innocence. The only difference is that now I know it. If there was anything fully shattered during my years abroad, it was faith in my own objectivity, as a journalist or as a human being.” In the end, for Hansen the relationship between the U.S. and the rest of the world boils down to how one American feels, which may be the most American move of all.
Hansen has an ambivalent relationship to journalism. In her memoir, she presents herself as a hapless, self-doubting reporter. She twice repeats the charge that Western journalists are akin to “spies,” and lets pass several conspiracy theories on the grounds that their underlying paranoia is historically justified.
It’s a good impulse for journalists to be aware of the limits and the misuses of their work, but at the moment I would rather defend this flawed profession—it’s necessary to any functioning democracy and is under unprecedented assault. We journalists work with the facts but our vision of them is often rushed, partial, imperfect. Yet that’s a responsibility we can shoulder—the responsibility of being storytellers. And in fact, Hansen’s own reporting for the New York Times Magazine and other venues is vivid, confident and layered, particularly when it’s focused on Turkey, a country she has clearly come to know well.
I asked my own hopelessly naïve questions when I arrived in Egypt, in 2002, at the age of 23, and stumbled into journalism in Cairo, in the dingy offices of a local independent English-language magazine called the Cairo Times. We were all in our twenties (a few interns were teenagers), a boisterous mix of foreigners and Egyptians. I cringe to think of the articles I wrote back then. I wandered around in a fog of ignorance, awkwardness and exhilaration.
It may be more dangerous, uncomfortable and absurd than ever to be an American abroad. I think that makes it a better kind of adventure. Gaining knowledge of the world—even discomfiting, painful knowledge—is a joy and a liberation, not a chore or a penance. The wealth of the experience, however, doesn’t always need to be made explicit, to be put to use, to be turned into an achievement, a narrative, a lesson in self-discovery. Telling other people about how travel transformed us is a bit like telling them our dreams; what is magically meaningful to us is rarely interesting to others. What’s interesting, in our encounters with the broader world, isn’t usually us—it’s the world.
At the Cairo Times there were, of course, endless conversations about U.S. foreign policy, foreign aid, foreign military intervention. We excoriated the hypocrisy of “democracy promotion,” and made fun of the stereotypes embedded in much Western media coverage. We led the way in investigating cases of torture and a crackdown on gay men. We fell in love with each other and formed lifelong friendships. We studied Arabic. We arrived at complicated, collective, mutating truths.
That remained the case throughout the Arab Spring and its ever more dire aftermath, as we struggled to make sense of events. The last year I was in Egypt, I worked at Mada Masr, an independent news site in English and Arabic that is blocked in Egypt today. Its reporters continue, against all odds, to have the courage to do their jobs. They publish their stories on Facebook; they are a small voice of reason, dissent and tolerance in a dark din of propaganda.
In 2011, the year of Mubarak’s ouster, I interviewed a former member of the ruling party who was running for a seat in parliament. As the uprising fizzled—undercut by the army and the Islamists and Western powers concerned with “chaos”—men like him were re-emerging from the shadows and belligerently reasserting their version of reality. After bragging to me about his ability to direct whole towns in the south to vote for him (his family owned cement factories in the region), he opened his cell phone and began shaking it in my face and shouting at me that the Arab Spring was an American conspiracy. On his phone was a YouTube video of Condoleezza Rice making her infamous remark regarding the second Iraq war being the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” I don’t remember the rest of the conversation with the cement king in detail, other than that it was heated—I couldn’t tell if he was talking in bad faith or not, but I unfortunately rose to the bait, much to his delight. He couldn’t believe he had an actual American journalist to yell at.
Today in the Arab world what looms behind most conspiracy theories is still the war in Iraq—the sense that American power is unstoppable and unaccountable, that Americans will do anything, say anything, just to bring an Arab country to its knees. It is hard to overstate the arrogance, callousness and devastation of the war, a crime for which no one has answered and for which Americans themselves have paid more than they seem to know. (But clearly we have an inkling, having elected two presidents who campaigned, more or less truthfully, on their opposition to the invasion.)
Hansen argues that American prosperity and identity are based on imperialism abroad as much as on racism at home. I agree, yet I have trouble seeing how most Americans prospered from the invasion of Iraq. Instead, I wonder at how much the fraudulent freedom we export abroad resembles the version we extol at home—a freedom that is undercut by economic bondage, by a barely concealed determination to disenfranchise so many.
At the same time, to explain everything through the lens of American power is to explain less. One ends up reflecting back the mirage of American omnipotence instead of the reality of U.S. blundering, blindness and internal dissent, of our inability to address the most basic needs of our own society (gun control, health care, an end to police brutality, economic inequality), let alone to confront global challenges such as climate change. One also risks turning all non-Americans into pawns, vassals and victims. Conspiracy theories that ascribe everything to American power diminish the responsibility of local regimes and elites, and the autonomy of people who have staked their own claim to the United States’ proclaimed principles, challenging it to live up to its rhetoric.
When my Egyptian friends and I watch our presidents shake hands, I think we see the same thing: angry, sexist, greedy old men, entranced by brute force and bent on telling us who we are and where we belong. The stakes for non-Americans, as Hansen rightly notes, are much higher, and we bridge the divide through their generosity and our humility. But we don’t have to be defined only by our nationalities.
For all his hard-bitten clarity, Baldwin expressed hope that America could see itself and could change “in order to deal with the untapped and dormant force of the previously subjugated, in order to survive as a human, moving, moral weight in the world.” He argued for what I think of as a sort of useful idealism, one that acknowledges reality as it is but does not accept that it has to remain so. He wagered that people could be better than they are: “We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”
How do we come to that realization? One way is through books, which can lure us to foreign lands in the first place, and can share with others the wonders and terrors we have discovered abroad. Sometimes they can be as deep of an experience as travel itself, fundamentally rearranging our perspective.
I had that feeling recently while reading American War by Omar El Akkad, an Egyptian-Canadian author and a former journalist who, like Hansen, felt the need to write a book. Akkad opted for literature, and it was the right choice; the novel offers greater freedom than journalism, more range and ambiguity than memoirs, the means of unraveling complex truths.
Akkad describes a near future in which the world has been ravaged by climate change and the coastlines of the United States have fallen into the sea. The federal government in Columbus, Ohio—the District of Columbia is underwater—has outlawed fossil fuels, and this interdiction has sparked a doomed and defiant insurrection in the American South.
Americans are reportedly uninterested in anything foreign—foreign news coverage, foreign literature—but Akkad tricks his readers with his title. Under the cover of fiction, he smuggles back home violence that the U.S. has fostered yet denied around the world. Henry James put Americans abroad, using foreign settings to bring them into sharp relief and stage moments of self-revelation; Akkad blurs the lines between home and abroad, and what he reveals are the hidden connections and startling resonances between American reality and that of war-torn countries far away. Consequently, in his novel the kinds of things that happen today in other parts of the world—things we mistakenly think of as distant and unrelated to us, the product of foreign dysfunction in which we have no hand—happen in the United States. Rebel groups and militias compete to recruit young Southerners to carry out suicide attacks; wayward drones circle in the sky; whole states are put under siege.
The world’s new inverted power relations are revealed gradually, each discovery producing a jolt of surprise mixed with recognition. The Arab region has, after the Fifth Spring revolution, finally swept away dictators and kings, and unified to become an ascendant empire. This new power, alongside China, fans the flames of the American conflict to advance its own agenda. “Come now,” says Yousef, an operative of the Bouazizi Empire, “Everyone fights an American war.” Yousef is old enough to remind his American comrade of the time “when it was still your guns and our blood,” a reference to the many proxy wars the U.S. has fought.
Sarat, the novel’s charismatic heroine, grows up in a refugee camp, and loses her family in a vengeful raid by Northern militias, a Sabra and Shatila-style massacre that takes place in Mississippi. The young woman trains to become a freedom fighter, a terrorist. Akkad conveys not just the horror of war but the excitement of being young and strong in the midst of it, of honing one’s strength and picking a side to fight on. He conjures the appeal of the South’s proud, misguided, underdog culture. In fact, what is remarkable about this oblique critique of U.S. foreign policy is how intimate and affectionate and compelling its depiction of a country tearing itself apart is. This dystopian United States is a moving place, alive with people acting as they do in conflicts everywhere: being vicious, brave, stupid, generous.
Sarat carries out daring attacks; she is imprisoned, tortured for years and broken by her captors. Of Sarat’s waterboarding, Akkad writes: “The water moved, endless. She entered and exited death, her body no longer hers. Spasms of light and heat encased her; the mind seized with fear and panic. She drowned yet death would not come.” What Akkad describes has happened in the real world, many times. But he makes it happen to an American heroine, a character whose very body, vividly rendered, one has come to love on the page.
For over a century, the United States has wielded extraordinary economic and military power. That power has shaped the world, and us. Abroad, it has often been used in ways that reveal our most undemocratic, exploitative, racist tendencies. But that we have betrayed our principles and hoarded our liberties does not make them empty—they are still worth claiming. Just as there are elements of our national culture worth admiring and cherishing.
But why is it so hard for us to admit that as human beings and moral agents, Americans are just like everyone else? Our lives and desires do not rank higher or lower; our motives and methods are not unique. The insistence on American exceptionalism as a personal birthright is not so much childish as adolescent: the desire to be declared inherently special, regardless of one’s actions, and the nagging fear that one is not.
Perhaps the way for Americans to truly enter the world, as equals and adults, is not to take our power for granted or to renounce it, but to treat it, while we have it, as the historical contingency and the responsibility it is.
At one point, Sarat is asked whether she would take the chance to escape to safety. She declines. “Somewhere in her mind,” writes Akkad, “an idea had begun to fester—perhaps the longing for safety was itself another kind of violence—a violence of cowardice, silence and submission. What was safety, anyway, but the sound of a bomb falling on someone else’s home?”
Art credit: Bean Gilsdorf