The Identity Crisis of an American Abroad

Making sense of one’s home country from afar

A “twenty-something life crisis,” and a writing fellowship, sent the journalist Suzy Hansen from New York to Istanbul in 2007. There she got swept up in a bigger crisis, one likely to sound familiar these days. It “was about my American identity,” she writes. “Confusion over the meaning of one’s country, and over that country’s place in the world, for anyone, but especially for Americans, might be the most foundational identity crisis of all.”


Hansen turns a coming-of-age travelogue into a geopolitical memoir of sorts, without sacrificing personal urgency in the process. She frankly confronts her ignorance about Turkey, long the West’s go-to model for modernizing the Middle East. And she wrestles with her assumptions about American beneficence abroad. As she travels and reads—learning about U.S. meddling not just in Turkey but in Greece, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the Arab world—her confidence is shaken.

Hansen’s disillusionment with the U.S. is so deep that it can sometimes feel doctrinaire. Yet her long stay in Istanbul (she’s still there) gives her an outsider’s vantage on myopic American arrogance that is bracing. And her fascinating insider’s view of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rise upends Western simplicities. “I had the space to look at everything so differently that I actually felt as if my brain were breathing,” she writes. The experience is contagious.