Notes on a Foreign Country – An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen

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)

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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.

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The Idiot by Elif Batuman

This is not a book about Turkey, except for the last ten pages. It is written by a Turkish-American author who grew up in New Jersey with Turkish parents. What I liked about the book was that there was so much I could relate to. First, of course, the Turkish mother in the US, which would be me. My daughter may grow up to be like the narrator Selin and even attend Harvard? I will give this book to my daughter as a send off present to read on the plane as she flies off to college. Because of her Turkish name, people will ask her where she is from and she will disappoint them saying she is from Washington. We live through this or similar anecdotes of questioning very frequently. Once we respond we ARE from the US,  only very few keep pushing with why the names are not American enough or why I – but not my children- speak with a slight accent. At that point I may respond I am Middle Eastern, European, Turkish or from İstanbul. Depends on my mood and whether I like the person or not. This happans so much that around age five my daughter Defne was telling everyone- without being prompted- that she was American with Turkish parents. Your name is part of your heritage after all.

The story takes place in 1995 at Harvard in Cambride, MA. I came to Providence, RI for graduate school in 1997, so some of my experiences were common, as I lived in Boston for a while  – taking the T (Green Line), shopping at Filene’s basement, eating cheap and not so good food, drinking at cheap bars and listening to the same song about deserts and the rain. Reading the book just brought back memories of those time. I even had a mathematics graduate student friend named Ivan, Bulgarian not Hungarian, but then again since I was a math grad student, so were most of my friends. As a math person, I had trouble following some of the literary references. Actually, I also had trouble following the math references.

on the relationship between tae kwon do and trigonometry

The second part of the book is Selin’s experience as an English teacher in Hungary. Hungary was under Ottoman rule for some time and apparently they do not like us Turks, despite our common lineage from Asia and similar language structure. Their eventual defeat of the Turkish army is a source of great national pride. Greece has that, too. Many monuments dedicated to victory over the Turks. I wonder how would European history and civilization be today if the Turks never made it from Asia to Turkey? Better or worse? Did they improve their civilization and culture as they tried to fight the horrible Turk or were they held back during the dark ages of the Turkish occupations?

In the final few pages, Selin goes on vacation with her family. My children do that every year. Every year in Summer, we take them to a foreign yet familiar country which is different from where they live but it is like a large version of their home, where everybody is similar to Mom and Dad. With no school, too much free time and too much attention from family and friends, they never complain. But, years from now, I can totally see my daughter writing about us, her Turkish family. I do not know if hers will be as funny as this book, but I will certainly enjoy reading it.

After reading The Idiot, I moved on to The Possessed.  I am reading them in reverse chronological order. I kind of feel bad that I know nothing about Russian literature except for having watched the Anna Karanina movie, the 1997 version with Sophie Marceau. In my junior year in college, I tried to learn Russian. My class was full of Turkish businessman and I dropped after the first term not fitting in with the crowd.  As a start on Russian literature, I will be reading Pushkin’s A Journey to Arzrum next- Russian literature (almost) about Turkey, two birds with one stone.

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Learning Greek

In preparation for my upcoming trip to Greece, and also because I kind of stalled in Spanish and want to move on, I decided to learn Greek. Americans say “This is all Greek to me”, for something that is complicated to understand. We do not say that, of course, being Turkish and Greece being our neighbor the Greek language is not exotic enough. (We do sometimes say something is as complicated as Chinese)  I am a mathematician by training and I thought I would have an advantage at the beginning, knowing the alphabet and all. Well, I was wrong. Knowing the letters one by one and trying to read something written in the Greek alphabet are not the same. Listening part is much easier. Having spent many holidays by the Aegean listening to Greek radio because the reception for Turkish radio was very weak, I am accustomed to the sound of the language.

I am mainly using Rosetta Stone, which I get free as an alumna of Brown University. It progresses slowly, mainly based on listening, but there is some writing practice as well. Grammar is unstructured and there is a lot of guesswork. It is supposed to be the natural way humans learn language. But most humans who are naturally learning a new language are much younger than me. I do no not have a child’s brain to absorb that much naturally. Rosetta Stone has many other languages. The other day I tested my daughter’s Turkish. Her father constantly complains that the children are forgetting their mother tounge, and he is blaming me, the mother, for that. She passed Turkish Level 3, easily 🙂 My son refused to be tested 🙂 🙂

I also bought some books. Not easy to find! With Spanish there was no shortage of resources. However, Greek is not as popular. There are actually more books on ancient Greek, a dead language, than in modern Greek. Too many religious people wanting to read the bible in its original language, because they do not trust the translation? They should instead get out and travel more. First, I got Living Language Greek, a set of three books and CDs. But, I wanted a grammar book – being a scholar, I wanted to learn the language the hard way. So I also got A manual of Modern Greek I , for University Students. This one was difficult, well deserving its name. Thinking about my students at the University of Washington, I do not they would like this book at all!  You can compare the first pages of the first chapters of the two books and see for yourself:


Also, I could not find its exercise book as it was out of print. The university library said they would not get it for me because it was not in my research field. I asked my local library, and they had a copy brought to me from Cleveland, Ohio. I scanned the pages – there was no way I could get through the book in the two week borrowing period. So, with a combination of Rosetta Stone, Living Language Greek, A Manual of Modern Greek, Anna Vissi and Haris Alexiou, I am very slowly progressing. I will be in Crete in two weeks to embarrass myself! I can even make another trip to Greece for more language experience. I will probably drive to the northern part and maybe even see some remains of the Turkish rule.

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Books about Turkey and Greece

Books about Greece guarded by Pythagoras

I have diversified. There are too many similarities in books about Turkey. Same traditions, food, stereotypes and I know them all. I just wanted to read different books. For over a year I have not read anything about Turkey. Then, when my friend and I were planning our Summer trip we thought Greece is very close the Turkey, where she lives and I spend my Summers. We decided to go to Crete. It will be scorching hot in July, oh well. Then came books about Greece. Some are coming with me on my trip. Unfortunately, I am not a kindle person. I must have pages to turn. So I will be hauling the books across continents and oceans and back.

First, I got books by Kazantzakis, of course! Everyone knows Zorba the Greek. My father is a huge fan of all things Greek. He had a copy of the book with underlining on some pages. I also got him the original soundtrack as a present years ago. He still has the LP and plays it on his old Dual turntable. Of course, we have seen the movie with the legend Anthony Quinn. But I loved Freedom and Death more. It is the story of a Greek uprising against the Turkish rule, of which there were several. A few brave and crazy Cretan warriors rising against the Sultan’s army. Besides being brave and crazy, the Cretan men are also extremely macho. One of them, kills the wife of the other, because he loves her, too. The wife, by the way, was the ex of a Turkish Bey who was killed. Well, it is a 19th century story. I am sure even Cretan men must have evolved and modernized by now,

Then, last week, I was at the library, picking up the fifteen! books my daughter had put on hold and I saw The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep by Steven Heighton on the new arrivals shelf. This novel is about Cyprus, the divided island in Eastern Mediterranean. When CIA meddled with the island affairs in 1974 to unite it with mainland Greece, Turkey invaded the northern part to protect the ethnic Turkish minority. They never left, because why should they, having gained control of a strategic point in the Middle East? The novel is a story of villagers living in Varosha secretly, unknown to the rest of the world, except for a Turkish Colonel named Kaya, who kind of helps them to keep the status quo. He has set up a good life for himself on the island alone, in an abandoned hotel by the beach, and wants to keep things the same. However, one day his men  harass and shoot at a Canadian soldier of Greek origin who is in therapy on the island after a tour in Afganistan. He escapes into the forbidden zone and meets the villagers. Things get messy when one of Kaya’s men Polat gets suspicious that there may be people living there. Although Kaya manages to send him to the Syrian border temporarily, he comes back with a promotion and wants to finish off his search. Among the villagers there is the Cretan ex soldier who hates the Turks, a couple of Greek Cypriots who have refused to leave their home, a Greek Cypriot mother and her twins from a Turkish Cypriot father, an older woman who runs the city library as if everything else in the city is normal. Both the story and the characters were very interesting.

I guess next year in July heat, I will be making a trip to Cyprus. However, there are only direct flights from Turkey to the northern part. If I want to go to the south, will I be allowed to go through the Green Line, or will I have to take a flight via Athens?




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A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk

The Nobel laurate was in Seattle Public Library in December promoting his new book, A Strangeness in My Mind. The auditorium was packed and we were late because of my lousy driving. On stage, he was joined by Walter Andrews, Professor Emeritus of University Washington. You can find the podcast here.

A Strangeness in My MindI had never seen him talk live or watched any of his interviews. I am a reader, I do not like to watch people speak. You cannot skip sections, reread what you like, stop and think. I guess you can, if you are watching it on Youtube. I prefer reading because it is faster and more efficient. When you read, you can skim through what you do not want- easier than fast forwarding a video. My first impression of Pamuk was that he is a funny guy. Somehow my expectations of this award winning, famous, best selling author was that he would be a serious speaker. However, he seemed slightly nervous and not very serious. His “reading” from his book was a two minute summary of the plot, somewhere in the lines of: Mevlut comes to Istanbul, Mevlut gets married, Mevlut has children. He talked a while about how a novel is much more than its story. At times he talked more like a professor than an author.

My signed copy of Istanbul

My signed copy of Istanbul

He did not answer the controversial questions he was asked about religion and politics in Turkey. Instead just talked about what he wanted to: his new book. Which was fine. That is why I was there. I bought my copy, had it signed, and got a chance to talk to him. I asked him to sign my Turkish copy of Istanbul, he asked me what I did in Seattle. I got my two seconds with a famous person. However, I forgot the selfie with the author. Maybe, next time.

Taksim Square 1960s

Taksim Square 1960s

The book tells the story of Istanbul as much of the main character Mevlut. The story of how the city changed in the last forty years with massive immigration form all over Turkey, how it was modernized- factory packaged yoghurts and boza replacing those sold by street vendors among many other things- how it got crowded and less green. You can read (or listen, if your prefer) more about it in this NPR story.

Istanbul 2015

Istanbul 2015

Change seems different when it is gradual and happening in front of your eyes, which was the case for  the first twenty three years of my life in Istanbul. After that, when I started visiting every summer, changes became sudden and hard to get used to. There is also the factor of age. We tend to get more nostalgic as we get older, maybe. After leaving Istanbul to attend graduate school in Providence, RI, I returned to live there for three more years before coming back to the US again. During those three years, we lived in Ayaspaşa, a short walk from Taksim Square, towards the Bosporus. In the Winters, there was a boza seller, who came in the evenings, shouting BOO-ZAAA, right under our bedroom window. We never missed a chance to go down and buy some boza. Was that possibly Mevlut?

BozaBoza is not like any other drink I know. You have to try it for a taste. If you are ever in Istanbul in Winter, you can now find it in supermarkets, visit the old boza shop in Vefa, or wait at night in your hotel for the boza seller.  You can also try and make it yourself. It is served with cinnamon and roasted chick peas.

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Dare to Disappoint- Growing Up in Turkey by Özge Samancı

DaretoDisappointI came across this book on a friend’s feed in Facebook. It is a graphic novel about growing up in Turkey in the eighties, written by someone from my generation- only a year younger from what I gather from the story- who attended the same university (Boğaziçi Üniversitesi) and the same department (Mathematics) as I did. Our paths may have crossed back in those days. I actually got the book for my daughter, who likes graphic novels. I have not given it to her yet. I waiting for one of our conversations about my childhood in Turkey. I got a chance to read the book during a final exam I was administering on Saturday evening. The students were trying to get through difficult math questions while I was enjoying this book. I felt guilty when they occasionally caught me smiling.

DaretoDisappoint_AtaturkNaturally there is so much in common with my childhood, although we grew up in different cities. The eighties in Turkey was a time of political turmoil and military oppression followed by rapid economic and social change, not all for the best. Elementary school was almost militaristic with the ever present Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and its first president. Through middle school years we saw the rise of political Islam through education. University was- and still is- a big goal and was highly competitive to get in. Many people did not have the opportunity for higher education.  For this reason, the choice of schools and the race to get into a good one defined the whole education systems with weekend test prep schools. I met my husband in such a test prep school.

Commodore64And then there are the less important but more memorable cultural details like the television series Dallas, popular toys of those times- the first computers- and the rise of a culture of display. Before we started posting all we have in Facebook, all we could do was wear anyting we could afford. In my case, at a private school with a strict uniform code, it was mostly about the shoes.

DaretoDisappoint_MatematikThe end of the book shows her years in college. This is what I would be most familiar with, since it was the same school, same classes and the same professors. However, unlike Özge, I really wanted to study mathematics. All the math notes collaged into the drawings to show the abstractness of college math, which were negative memories for the author, actually made sense to me. I enjoyed the same classes she suffered through. In the end, she is drawing pictures and writing stories, I am teaching math.

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Midnight at the Pera Palace – The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King

MidnightatthePeraPalaceMidnight at the Pera Palace – The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King is mostly a collection of stories of people who passed through the city, loosely tied with the history of the Pera Palace Hotel. It is not a guide book to Istanbul. To be able to enjoy and appreciate this book, you should experience the city first. It is perhaps more suitable for a post-visit read. Maybe, you should read it as you plan your second and longer visit, to see the friends you have made in Istanbul during your first one. I must also say that I have a problem with the cover photograph of the book, a bunch of guys in tuxedos having fun at a party. Where are the ladies? I guess it is an appropriate cover for a book with more than enough mention of the entertainment and prostitution industries of the city.


Pera Palace Hotel

One of the interesting characters is a black-white Russian (moved from Mississippi to Russia and became a Russian citizen but had to escape during the revolution) Frederick Bruce Thomas/Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas who established one of the most famous night clubs in Istanbul. A place with the same name, Maksim Gazinosu, was still famous when I was growing up. Another one is Nezihe Muhiddin, the founder of the Women’s Union and later a Women’s Party in 1923 which was not registered by Mustafa Kemal’s administration. There is also the story of Halide Edip Adıvar, the political activist and author, who later had to leave the country with her husband because of a rivalry with the president.  Nazım HikmetThere is a chapter on arguably the greatest Turkish poet, Nazım Hikmet, who was exiled- yet another story of someone who ended up leaving Istanbul- and died in Russia. There is also the story of Leon Trosky, one of the makers of the Bolshevik Revolution who was Lenin’s close friend but could not later get along with Stalin. He had to stay in Istanbul, unwillingly spending most of his time on the beautiful island of Büyükada (Prinkipo) under the watchful eyes of the Soviets and the Turks.

During the Second World War, the city was swarming with spies, some apparently working as teachers at my high school, Robert College. I thought this was just a rumor, but now that I have come across it in so many books, why not? Is there a better cover up profession for an American spy other than being an English teacher at an American school. You do not need extra credentials other than being good at English which comes naturally, you get lots of free time to roam around and, in this private school’s case, access to many rich families and Istanbul’s elite. Well, spies or not, our teachers were great.

Seyyan Hanım

Seyyan Hanım

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is the one on music. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an ebook where while you read about the music the tunes come through? Well, thanks to technology, with a five-second search online, the music started to play on my laptop as I kept reading.  I listened to  Roza Eskinazi and the oud and voice of Hrant Kenkulian as I read this chapter. The rebetikos Rosa Eskinazi sings were familiar to me because my father is a huge fan of everything Greek so I had heard many of them before. The music of Udi Hrant is the kind you would listen to if you are very depressed and getting very drunk at a meyhane (literally wine/liquor house). It is one of those melodies which transforms me to Turkey in an instant. Not in a happy way, but full of sorrow and longing. One of my favorites in this chapter was listening to Seyyan sing Mazi Kalbimde Bir Yaradır, the song which gives its name to the chapter The Past is a Wound in My Heart. Lastly, there is the story of the Armenian Zildjan family, the famous maker of cymbals.

At the background to all these stories is the history of the city from the end of the 19th century to mid 20th century; how much it changed as so many people came and left, with the emphasis mostly on those who left. Which was my other issue with the book. The majority of the characters whose stories told were about leaving Istanbul. In a city where the population has increased from half a million after WWI to almost 15 million today, surely more people have come and stayed than those who left. And what makes the city what it is today is more a result of the people who have stayed. But then again, one of the things that drew me to the stories in the first place is that I am one of those who has left.


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