Hanaan Louis Discusses Muslim Faith, Being a Third Culture Kid, and the Perspectives of Humanity
There are not enough words to describe how inspiring حنان لويس (Hanaan Louis) is to me; as a creative, a friend and a human being. Without a doubt, she is one of the most profound conversationalists to have recently entered my life, and I am incredibly grateful for her presence. I hope by reading this piece, you will have a different perspective on the moving Muslim faith and how we take into account our roots of humanities perspective.
Hanaan is a young Muslim woman living in New York City who was born in that state of Georgia. At the age of two, she moved to Kuwait, an Arab country in the Middle East, and resided there until she was fifteen years old. Now she has a humble mission of bringing awareness of Islam and her religion through her studying of film, directing and screenwriting.
Hanaan and I discussed her selected word, “homesick” and the tribulations of being what is known as a “third culture kid.” By definition, a third culture kid is someone raised in a culture other than their parents’ culture and in turn is influenced by a melding of differences. “I would describe homesick to be constantly comforting myself with as much as home as I can find. This usually takes the form of food, or clothing, or both.” Hanaan adds her personal definition of the third culture, “I was taught independence and the importance of independence by two American’s at home while I was taught the complete opposite by my peers at school.”
Regardless of age or time period, shifting geographically and culturally can show changing effects on any individual. Often, those people are more exposed to different parts of the world and can have a more influential viewpoint on modern day issues. Unfortunately, this perspective is not welcomed at all times. “You feel like you’re too Arab for America and too American for the people in the country you grew up.”
She admitted she struggled while attending school in Kuwait, “I tried to simulate so hard to distract them from the color of my skin. I was the only full American at my school, yet I had no connections to America. As far as I knew I was and still am only American on paper. I spoke English fluently, that was the extent of my ‘American-ness.’”
The term “third culture kids” was originally coined by United States sociologists, John, and Ruth Useem in the 1950s after their travels to India. It comes with its benefits and challenges. Many of these children, even adults, don’t get the opportunity to develop their identity due to the constant transitions. “I wasn’t taking Arabic foreign language like the American-Kuwaiti hybrids at my school, I was getting the same exact grades as the native Kuwaiti speakers, and they hated it.”
However, Hanaan is by every means one of the most centered, wholesome and intellectual people I know. I firmly believe as someone who moved around as well, that the perspective of her journey is a large piece of what’s made her so humble and in-tune with humanity. It’s as if the more faces we witness in the world, the more we understand what it means to be human. She admits she misses Kuwait. “I say my home is divided into three places; Kuwait, Bahrain, and Dubai. That’s where my family is, and where my friends are.”
We diverge to discuss the Muslim region. Admittedly, I knew very little about not just the religion itself but the real beauty behind it. Thanks to Hanaan, I’ve come to love it dearly and the text that resides with it. I hope I can encourage you, regardless of your religion to find peace and wonder in other faiths. As a Christian, I’ve come to appreciate some of the Muslim literary works and some messages of the Quran.
Hanaan desires to continue this mission, as mentioned, through her work.“As someone who is a screenwriter frequently, more often then not, you’ll find Muslim characters of different levels of faith in my work. I like to depict different kinds of Muslims as a way to educate people who may not know much about Muslims and Islam in general.”
She continues, “I’d like to expose people to how normal Muslims are because at the end of the day Muslims are human, and they have normal thoughts, fears, hopes, and dreams. I try to do it in a natural way that isn’t just a preach session.” This action should not be understated. In our present-day media, many things are twisted for the sake of entertainment, and sadly the Muslim religion is one of them. “Our religion advocates peace, however, how Muslims are betrayed in media kind of overdoes that message.”
She reiterates that Muslims are human and are subject to human error. “As such, Muslims you know, sometimes curse, sometimes they drink, they…they sometimes do a lot of the things that are not necessarily depicted when you have a Muslim show or a Muslim character.”
It’s remarkable when you learn about the smaller things embedded in everyday knowledge. Hanaan and I had a side conversation regarding Muslim mannerism and responsibilities. It’s incredible to see a culture so interlaced with religion, something we’ve arguably shifted from in Western civilization. I can truly understand how challenging it must be to uphold that within the confines of another country. “I don’t want to depict Muslims in the wrong light, but I do want to depict struggles that Muslims go through while adhering to their religion.”
In an example of these struggles, she discussed a scene she wrote regarding two Muslim women; who were best friends of which one was in love with the other. One of them being forced into marriage. It touched on the LGBTQ community and the struggle of trying to stay on track with their religion while having natural feelings towards someone who you can’t marry. Essentially she explains, “It’s about how that person values her religion over worldly desires. I really wanted to explore that.” Hanaan has an eloquent way of reminding us that nothing is right or wrong in the overall religion vs. society argument, but merely the struggle of it. More so, the Islamic religion takes into account the intentions of someones free will.
The idea of religious exploration triggered another thought in my mind; What kinds of things should we be educationally exposed to regarding Islam and Muslim culture as non-Muslims? It was estimated in 2017 that there were 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, which is roughly 24% of the world population. This number is significant. As a citizen in America, a place we claim are a melting pot, therefore shouldn’t we be taught in primary education more about our neighbors? How to respect their religions? So when we grow up, in whatever faith, as business owners and doctors, we can adequately handle the situation like second nature? I don’t have the answer to that question, but it is good to notably store as a rhetorical question for thought the next time you address what you’re learning in school systems.
“It’s part of my homework as a Muslim to teach people about Islam in the way I behave. I am clearly fully covered; therefore I am representing my religion. The way I act is a reflection of my religion. I think that is the best way people can learn, by seeing someone and how they behave.” Hanaan adds, “I really want to emphasize that we are a religion of peace. When we say ‘alsalam ealaykum’ it literally means, ‘peace be upon you.’ That’s a right as a Muslim, and as a Muslim, you’re expected to respond, ‘and upon you be peace.’”
We continued our theme of knowledge and discussion by weaving into again how Muslims are portrayed by society. “I feel like a lot of people close their eyes on some things. They don’t want to believe the truth. Terrorism, for example, is not a part of our religion. We’re punished if we even shed blood.”
I commented that ‘they’ could be pointing towards the entertainment industry and our learning abilities. I stated, “If our geographic area doesn’t reflect a demographic, such as Islam, African American or Latino, then we’re not taught how to respect their cultures or educated on their religions properly. A lot of people who stay and grow up in the same place and don’t travel, don’t know how to react to those people. So they go back to their roots.” I added, “It’s a bad coupling. You have people who aren’t educated, and or don’t have the tools even to educate themselves. But with so much technology in the world and available knowledge, I don’t think there is an excuse anymore not to be educated for the majority.”
Hanaan brought up the 2015 Mosque terrorist bombing in Kuwait, “It’s the same thing happening to us Muslims. In Syria, Palestine, Yemen, we’re also facing what you’re facing. The sooner people open their eyes to it, even just admit it…the faster we could advance and move forward, and make the world a better place.”
To close our discussion, I asked Hanaan what she considered her defining moment. It was a bitter-sweet statement that I believe could move those who are open-minded and genuinely listening to her powerful words. “I’d say moving to New York City.” She paused, “By the time I was on that plane, I didn’t know who I was. My mother and I were in survival mode. She desperately wanted to show me who I was capable of being. And I didn’t believe her. But I did. I became the strong woman I am today. I know what I want. And I know what I don’t want. I know what I would tolerate and what I wouldn’t. I’m more confident than I ever was in Kuwait. I learned to be fearless, and I learned to be independent. I learned to think for myself and make decisions, because my choices, opinions, and decision-making matters. I learned to depend on my Lord time and time again. I learned what true struggle and poverty was because I’ve been through it. The struggle being so real that I had no choice but to depend on my Lord and prove to Him that I could pass this test. That if I passed this test, I am worthy of being rewarded. New York has taught me not to wait to lend out a helping hand wherever and however you can. It has taught me the importance of sensitivity, and how far you go depends on how hard you work. Whereas overseas, how far you go depends on who you know, and your status in society.”
She says Kuwait has become more independent and progressive in terms of its labels and groupings of their societies internal caste systems. Just like Western culture, Middle Eastern counties have their own turmoil with race, status and wealth. “The things I considered important while I was overseas, like my name, my skin color, and how much money I didn’t have, wasn’t that important over here [New York]. The things that I found to be of importance here is who I am as a person. And that took a long time for me to figure out. That journey has ultimately shaped me into who I am today. But so has who I was in Kuwait.”
You can follow Hanaan Louis and her work on Instagram @aichness and on her new YouTube Channel, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCaUjsNKU722wC8le5sv8yYg/featured.
L. Hanaan, personal communication, February 24th, 2019.
Written, Interviewed and Photographed by Sarah McKinnon.