Do our names define us? And if they do, would you ever change yours?
For anyone who has gone through the ordeal of trying to come up with a name for their newborn child, picking the “right” name that makes everyone happy, remains culturally acceptable and somehow is “special” can be quite a challenge. For whether we like it or not, a name leaves an impression, and it is for life.
It is not a coincidence that so many people opt to name their children after powerful or admirable historic or religious figures, such as kings and queens. It’s because they hope that some of the famous person’s values are somehow embodied in the child.
What made me think about names was a recent viral news story about Saudi Arabia banning 50 baby names. Although it was denied by the nation’s interior ministry, it caused many debates and got a lot of people thinking about their own name, especially if they found it was included on the banned list.
Non-Arab names like Linda, Alice and Rama were on this “banned” list, for which nobody has claimed responsibility, along with Arabic names that are deemed un-Islamic or against the culture, such as Nabi (prophet) and Malak (Angel) .
Strangely enough the list included Abdul Nasser, which happens to be the name of the late pan-Arab Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, whose name was very popular and was bestowed on many squares, roundabouts and streets across the Arab world.
My own father’s names – Malek, as well as Amir and Jabreel – were also among the banned names, so I couldn’t help teasing him about this. He replied that sometimes his more religious friends would add “Abdul” (slave) in front of his name, as Malek is one of the names of Allah and my father could not be the owner or ruler of anything.
All of this started an interesting debate about the evolution of names, where older Arab names were far more difficult and complicated compared to today’s names, which are sometimes influenced by trends and celebrities or are simply made up. The tradition of naming a child after their grandfather or grandmother is kept up by some families, but for most new parents, it seems to be out of fashion.
To be named after an ancestor does help trace and maintain the family tree. For example, my brother is named after his grandfather, out of honour and respect.
In Kitab Al Hayawan (The Book of Animals), the Muslim thinker and writer Abu Uthman Al Jahiz (775-868) explained how Arabs would name their children with “difficult, animal-like” names. This custom of using strong names like Laith (lion) or Saqr (falcon) was done to repel enemies encountered along journeys in the desert. Some of these names have lasted to this day.
I was named after an animal, the graceful Arabian gazelle, Reem (although spelled Rym in my case), where my last name is Ghazal, a deer in Arabic.
My father thought it would be amusing to have a child called Deer Deer, so he could say “Come here, dear Deer Deer” whenever he had a chore for me to do. One of my teachers would comment on how I never walked anywhere but ran. Did the name inspire that or was I always a hyperactive creature to whom the name just happened to fit?
Many of my friends claim that somehow they have ended up living up to their name. For instance, a friend who was named after the singer Fairouz happens to sing very well. Coincidence?
I wish there were more studies into names and their meanings, as the origins of many names have been lost over time.
Of course, the most common male name among Muslims is Mohammed, or variations of it, while many women are named after his wives, and others after his children and companions.
It is interesting to contemplate names, and wonder, as Juliet did in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, whether a rose by any other name would really smell as sweet.