Hanane comes from the town of Mostaganem on the northern coast of Algeria. In 2008, Hanane fell in love with a Spanish man she met in Mostaganem. In the months that followed, she married him, she came to Spain, fell in love with Spain, had a baby girl, fell in love with her too, and hasn’t stopped loving every new thing since.
Before the spring of 2008, Hanane was working at a hospital. On her break one April afternoon, she was in a café with three of her friends when she crossed glances with a man making eyes at her. That afternoon, in the exchange of one wink, two names, and a phone number, a man named Roberto went from a stranger to the person who would determine her future.
“Hanane,” he declared a week later, “You are the woman I want to make my wife.”
Within months, on the heels of a big traditional Algerian wedding, Hanane followed Rober to Cabezón de la Sal, Spain, to start a new life. It really was a new life. To move to a new country where everything she’d learned so far was obsolete, babbling a few handfuls of words, was jarring for Hanane, even if not unexpected. As she explained it, you have a perfectly legitimate life and the things you have are valid—your relationships, your degree, your job, your possessions—and suddenly you start at zero and you have to validate yourself again. “I’m in an adult school taking classes for 2º de la ESO [12- to 13-year olds in standard settings],” she said. “In my country I have a degree. Here that doesn’t qualify me for anything.”
Yet this wasn’t discouraging to Hanane. She began studying Spanish right away and used it as much as she could. She made friends in the neighborhood, in cafés, and in stores. “I love to talk!” she declared. “Well or not well—however it comes out of my mouth!” Now she is proud to be able to speak and understand, read and write the language.
This country has been welcoming and accepting of her, yet Hanane is conscious of her differences. She sees many people she knows here as uncomfortable with things that are foreign, beginning with their lack of languages. “In my country, Arabic is our language. We also speak French and we learn other dialects of Arabic. Now I’m learning Spanish and I’ve just begun English.” Both culturally and individually, Hanane has come to recognize language as either a tool or a barrier, and finds that in Cantabria, people are less interested in language as a resource than as an obstacle.
Though the language is no longer her main obstacle, her desire to adapt at times makes it a struggle for Hanane to remain connected to her culture. She relies strongly on her religion to connect her to her roots, and to her, being Muslim means various things: yes, it means praying five times a day, fasting for the month of Ramadan, and whispering the words “Allahu akbar” in her daughter’s ear the moment she first held the infant in her arms. But she is also honoring her religion when she helps distribute food to the poor during Ramadan, in her patience and her love of the new things her life gives her, in her pride in who she is and where she comes from. In various ways, among Islam, couscous, and her half-Algerian daughter, Anissa, Hanane maintains elements of her old life here.