When I was a little girl I constantly wondered what it would be like to have a double-barreled name. To have two parts of a whole anchored to me wherever I went, an Ali-Ahmed or a Willis-Cooper, a small undiscerning hyphen joining two worlds. Perhaps, on some strange level I thought it would somehow keep my parents together, that somehow a secure ink bridge linking their histories would keep my narrowed world from dissolving all around me. As I grew, I quickly realized that my dream of having a hyphen strung to my name is one that was all too real; a contested battlefield of my once oft reverie.
Born from a mother who astounded others with her hybridity and a father whose tongue dripped with the languages of varying lands, I was a diffident mixture of one part warrior and one part linguist. With time I realized that I too would have facets of my own being to add to my family’s verbal portrait. “She’s quite the crier” during my infant years. “She’s such a thoughtful little helper” through my preschool years. I became the “reader and animal lover” into elementary school and the “brooding worrier” throughout much of secondary. All of these varying and seemingly contrasting titles anchored me and provided me some semblance of an identity. But each passing year of my life seemed to fragment me further. Unsure of who I was or my place in the world, I began looking to others to help me understand myself. I internalized and almost became consumed by the verbal caricatures that others had of me and soon found myself clutching to this idea of using a hyphen to bridge the gap I felt between who I was and how others perceived me.
Hyphens quickly became the litmus test by which I would attempt to socially ground myself with anyone I met. Was I the Muslim? Or was I the Canadian? Was I Somali? What shared experiences could I identify with? By 18 I would often introduce myself as Hanaa, the Black-Canadian-Somali-Muslim or another varied combination of these words and hyphens. I was torn, with pieces of myself drifting between tiny hyphens. I quickly began to wonder how I could reconcile all of these comparative identities. Was my identity something that I could construct or was it conditioned to change as I grew? Was my identity something I had been predisposed to since birth? And, in all honesty, what I wondered most of all was how I’d allowed the opinions of others to shape the opinions I had of myself. I needed answers. I needed solace. I needed to start at the core of it all. Who was I?
My entire metamorphic overhaul began by simply looking at myself in the mirror. One of my favourite authoresses once described the importance of examining our inner workings by first honestly and sincerely seeing ourselves through our own eyes. Reflection is after all the spirit of our faith. We are told time and time again in the Qur’an to reflect on the signs around us. We are taught to emerge into a new day having contemplated on the previous one. So, there I stood, looking at a reflection I’d seen hundreds of times before. I took a deep breath and tried to focus. I saw all of the fragmented pieces that made me. Narratives not entirely my own began swirling in my head. I refocused my eyes and cleared my mind and finally, I saw her. A girl, a human; I saw me. On some level, you’re probably thinking this isn’t a revolutionary revelation, but I’d never felt freer than in that moment. I’d forgotten that down to my very marrow I was a daughter of Adam, flesh and soul, and that I was an individual and distinct creation of Allah subhana wa ta’la. He created us remarkably unique yet linked us by many common threads; one of them being that it is the sum of our parts that makes us who we are. The hyphen which once served to connect and bridge a distorted gap was now alight and I was undaunted by the task of cleaning up the ashes and starting anew. What could be more revolutionary than that— the realization that I am the sole cultivator of my identity?
The more I reassemble pieces of myself, the more I realize that for much of my life, I didn’t fully understand who I was or what my place in the world was. I’ve learned that it takes the repetitive practice of examining and reexamining the varying components of oneself to really get a full picture, that names, labels, or hyphens won’t do this. I, like many of you, am on a journey of preserving my inner self and identity cultivation and I have nothing but prayers and wishes of growth and strength for us all. Trust yourself and have mercy as you blossom.