You are born and you know your family. Then you meet other children, start school, meet other families. Yours is still the one you love the best, but is it the best? You learn to love your community and do not know any better. In school they start teaching you to love your country. It has to be taught, you see, because you will probably never get to see it all, meet all the people and get to know and love them personally. To be a part of your country and culture, you are taught about your collective past- which is filtered, polished and glorified from the point of view of the ruling elite. Whether or not your ancestors were really part of that past or fought those wars is irrelevant. You are forced to respect the flag and the nation. You are made a citizen. Maybe some literature and language thrown in, but mostly history and pride. What you see in school is very selective. You only hear about the enemies (others) and the heroes (us).
Denial and forgetting were crucial to the patriotism that help the idea of the Turkish nation together, and to its nationalism. They had been crucial to America’s nationalism, too. (page 107)
The school founded by American missionaries that I attended
It does not stop at school. The newspapers, TV and these days social media, present you what makes you a part of a country. And then, you go to a foreign country and the initial surprise or shock, once you settle in and get used to and try to understand their ways, you look back at where you came from.
You look back because first you realize that you are different. You look back because they ask you questions and you feel out of place. For me that happened when I moved to the US in 1997 for graduate school. For Suzy Hansen it happened when she moved to Turkey in 2007.
Once you realize that the way you have looked at the world- the way you view your country, your history, your life – has been muddles, you begin a process of shedding layers of skin. It’s a slow process, you break down, you open up, but you also resist, much like how the body can begin to heal, only to fall back into its sicker state. (page 97)
And then you are never the same again. You wonder if you would have grown this much as an adult if you had stayed where you were. Could you have still figured things out, if you stayed, but followed the news, read and just traveled?
19th century Armenian church in Suşehri
The first thing I realized was that in the US very few people knew where Turkey was. 1997 was too long after the Iran-Iraq war- I do not know how much it was in the news in the US who was supporting Saddam against Iran, so they may or may not have seen my country in the map. This was before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Turkey was in Europe? Middle East? Was I a Muslim? Back then, Muslim would not remind someone of terrorists as it did today. Surprisingly many asked me about Midnight Express, the movie. I had not seen it. But, by far, the most common question was about the Armenians. At that time I was living in Massachusetts where there is a town called Watertown, MA probably named after Suşehri (same meaning) in Turkey, where some of the population came from. Why did we kill them? We are never taught about that part of our history because it was not glorious, unlike the war against the Greeks, which was, because they attacked with an actual army. So, I read and learned, but then I still did not have a proper response. Should I say the Ottoman government ordered their expulsion because they were about to start a civil war? Should I say my ancestors had not even made it to Turkey by that time because they were being pushed out of their own lands and trying to make it to what would become Turkey. What would an American say if she is asked about the bloody past of her country? Would she defend herself saying her family came after the Native American genocide and never owned slaves?
About the appropriation of land, the plundering of resources, the taming of rivers, the enslavement of people, and the destruction of plains and mountains – all of which contributed to making my country the wealthiest and the most powerful on earth, and myself a beneficiary of it – I could say, “I had nothing to do with that and it is not a part of me. (page 113)
This book is about the authors’ experiences in Turkey and other places in the Middle East, but also about her discovery of her own country. Many American’s who are so proud of their country’s power do not really know at what expense this came and still comes at, both within their own country in the lives of minorities, in racism, the very unequal distribution of wealth, and others, civil wars orchestrated by the CIA, foreign tyrants and dictators backed by the USA, hundreds of thousands of people dead in Japan, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Latin America so the United States can sell more goods and weapons. Some prefer to think only about the sacrifice of their heroes, the veterans and the fallen, make this possible- the price of all those is the lives of soldiers lots, their heroes fighting for their country. Because the lives of the others are not worth as much.
Presidents McKinley, Taft, and Roosevelt alternately referred to their new foreign subjects as little brown men, savages, and bandits, and our supposed idealist crusader Woodrow Wilson argued that while the European subjects of former empires didn’t require American tutelage, brown subjects in the Middle East certainly did. (page 113)
James Baldwin in Turkey. “While the words used for God and love and happiness vary from one country to another and from one language to another, Coca-Cola means the same thing in all places and tongues.” as quoted from Sonallah Ibrahim
Turkey like the US has enemies. A big chunk of Europe and the Middle East still hates us. Almost every city or island in Greece has a remembrance of Turkish brutality which they proudly show to tourists. The legacy of the Ottoman Empire is still alive. We are in their history books as the enemy. However, while Turkey’s empire is in the past, the American Empire is still going on strong. There are too many people in this world who hate the Americans, and for a good reason.
…we are missionaries and oil speculators, racists and soldiers, bureaucrats and financiers, occupiers and invaders, hope mongers and hypocrites. The American dream was to create our own destiny, but it’s perhaps and ethical duty, as a human being, and as an America, to consider that out American dreams may have come at the expense of a million other destinies. (page 246)
Most Americans are either unaware of this hatred, or they just don’t get why. This story of an American journalist looking back at her country from where those people are is a good place to start understanding why. And maybe after reading it, you may want to take a trip to the Middle East. I suggest you start with Istanbul, the city James Baldwin liked so much in the sixties.