What’s in a Name
By S. N. Burney
New York, US


….What’s in a name
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d
- Shakespeare in “Romeo & Juliet”

Turning from the philosophy of Shakespeare, Juliet and the West we enter a world, where name is as integral a part of human psyche as religion, language and culture; and where before the offspring is ‘christened’ and the event celebrated, sacred books are consulted for the genesis, spiritual quality and psychology of a certain name. For the parents and the grandparents it is a genealogical link and bond that ties generations to those preceding it and those following. They believe that their names are their fortunes telling them what they are or hopefully must be!
Muslims of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh are more sensitive to the undertone of their names. These are Arabized because of the vast religious influence or Persianized due to Mogul rule in the sub-continent; and are mostly derived from the ‘attributes of God’ preceded or followed by the name of the Prophet Muhammad making the entire name a cohesive whole. After British occupation, a significant majority Anglicized its names by using initials of the first name(s) preceding the last.
At the turn of the twentieth century, however, these people seemed inclined to compliment themselves by ostentatious prefixes – some genuine, some not so genuine. Thus came ‘Syed’, ‘Syed Muammand’, ‘Sheikh’, ‘Chaudhry’, ‘Sardar’, ‘Malik’, ‘Khan’, ‘Maulvi’, ‘Sufi’, ‘Pir’, ‘Haji’, ‘Hafiz’, ‘Qazi’, ‘Mian’, et al. They are addressed by these honorifics only by people paying extreme obeisance. For all others – friends, colleagues, relatives – they are minus these trappings.
The anatomy of their last names is also interesting. Most, it is an effort to establish lineage with the Prophet’s family. Alternatively are used derivatives of the name of the righteous caliphs, Prophet’s companions or the great religious jurists (Imams) and scholars of yore. One comes across thousands and thousands of persons with the same ‘family’ or ‘last’ names with absolutely no relation by any stretch of imagination.
Now these people migrate with this baggage of multi-layered names to the United States where names are just names without prefixes or suffixes. This is a two or at the most three syllable affair with a genuine first name and the family name. Few have middle initials; and that’s the end of the story.
While the authorities have been responding with a growing cosmopolitanism and respect for foreigners’ culture and religion, the configuration of the immigrant names remains a conundrum to as exquisitely organized an agency as the Homeland Security. It devised a simple formula of three-tier name: (a) first; (b) MI (if any); and (c) family or last name. It seems logical, exhaustive and should explain a person’s identity. But underneath the orderly surface of this simplicity there lurks an anomaly that occurs when the ‘prefix’ is established as the ‘first’ name.
Sheikh Muhammad Wahid Hajveri, who migrated to the States a few years ago, has a story to tell. “The first time I was called by my ‘first’ name,” he says, “I looked around for someone else to respond, only to realize seconds later that it was I who was being addressed.” It took him quite a while to be comfortable with the new label. Then by and by his sons joined him. They were so named – not unusual – that the first, second and the fourth components of his and their names are common. As for the third component – the Christian name in Western lingo – the alphabet ‘W’ makes even the middle initials identical!
“So in one house we are six ‘Sheikh Hajveris’”, he says with a worried look on his face. “Any one of us is unable to claim a letter unless opened and checked for contents”. And seldom could the one required on phone talk without the apparatus changing three or four hands. “The situation becomes more disconcerting,” he adds, “when there are no marked gaps in brothers’ ages to tell them apart.” The possibility of mistaking one for the other or (mis)using a facility meant for one by the other – by default or by design – cannot, therefore, be ruled out.
Even a three-syllable name would pose the same problem, if the so-called ‘prefix’ is deemed to be the ‘first’ name. “I am amused,” Wahid chuckles “how our Sikh brethren are managing since their names, with hardly an exception, start with ‘Sirdar’ and end at ‘Singh’”.
It would be presumptuous on my part to call for any change in policy so carefully evolved over centuries. But I strongly feel that some adjustment is inevitable. The form should be modified to contain four columns for immigrants: (a) prefixes, if any; (b) first name; (c) middle initials, if any; and (d) last or family name. Information at (a) should be used only for hard core official documents, like passports, social security, permanent residence cards, lease deeds, birth certificates, etc. For all other purposes information available at (b) and (c) should suffice. It will clear the confusion and mix-up where father, sons and brothers carry identical ‘first’ and ‘last’ names.
But, really, what’s in a name. That which we call a ‘titum arum’ would, were it called by any other name, smell as horrible.

 

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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