My Name is Hanna(n)
By: Hannan Ahmed
November 29, 2017
The first thing I ever bought in Jordan was in a Starbucks. I realize how basic that sounds. In my defense, the Starbucks was in the airport. I did not go out of my way to get a cappuccino from my go-to American coffee shop—rather, it came to me.
I partially ordered the drink because I was understandably exhausted after 24 hours of travel. However, another part of me also wanted to try it out. Not the coffee, because that was pretty standard. No, I wanted to say my real name—properly pronounced, without confusing the barista or being asked to spell or repeat myself. And, as I was hoping, for the first time my cup didn’t read Hannah—it said حنان (Hannan).
In all honesty, this really is not that big of a deal. In fact, most of my friends have what we have dubbed “Starbucks Names.” Some may consider the “simplification” (read: Anglicization) of our given names as indication of a lack of pride in our respective cultures. However, for the most part, my friends and I use our “Starbucks Names” for the same reason: to lessen the inconvenience for the employees and keep the line moving.
Before I came to Jordan, this had little to no bearing on my experiences with coffee shops, which are my favorite place to spend time. I’m content to even be known as “Hannah” by my friends at the on-campus Starbucks as a result of frequenting the shop for a quick conversation and hot drink.
It wasn’t until that first day, and that first drink, that I realized how good it feels for someone to know my name and to say it the way my parents do. In Jordan, I feel the way I imagine “Luke” and “Alex” have always felt in the United States, because there was never a reason for them to feel otherwise.
Of course, it is not just my name on which Jordan has an impact. It’s the fact that I can hear the call to fajr (the morning prayer) from my bedroom window before the crack of dawn. Or that someone can throw down a prayer mat in an empty lot, the back of a supermarket, or even a stairwell and conduct one of the five mandatory prayers in Islam without fear of being robbed or attacked. And no longer can I use “I’m the girl in the pink headscarf” as a way for people to find me in a crowd, since I’m never the only hijabi in a room. Although, I still do stick out as my perpetually naïve expressions and mannerisms scream American. I have even eaten pepperoni pizza, gummy bears, and bacon (!!!) without hesitation because I know there is no way it’s pork. There are so many parts of my life here that I can go about as I please and, whether the people around me practice, don’t practice, or are not Muslim, I never have to explain. This is a phenomena to which I am not accustomed.
That’s not to say that people here understand everything about me. I consistently get confused looks when people ask about my asl (or my family’s origins), and everyone asks. Typically, guesses range from Yemen to Egypt to Morocco, often dipping down to Sudan and Somalia. These guesses are usually made under the impression that I must be Arab. I have yet to encounter someone who guesses Eritrea on his or her first try.
Thinking upon my return to Texas and subsequently Washington, D.C., I will miss the convenience of practicing Islam. I’ll have to start checking food labels for gelatin and ask about whether the salad has bacon in it (you would be surprised by how often the answer is yes). I’ll probably still say my name is Hannah at Starbucks and other miscellaneous coffee shops.
But I’ll also get to explain to my friends the meaning of my name: "tenderness." I can detail the specific motions required during prayers and their timings, and in return hear about my friend’s favorite religious holidays and traditions. Religion becomes something special again, something I am forced to remember on my own, as I no longer will be amidst an entire people who were raised in the same belief system and sect as I was.
The sheer availability of faith, in the people, customs, even the air, I have already come to take advantage of and will certainly miss. And yet, the appreciation that stems from rarity, the ability for a simple "assalamu alaikum" (Peace be upon you) from a stranger to make me excited, is something I am eager to reclaim back home.