In the West, our names tend to be pretty nailed down and unvaried. Unless you’re the child of some Hollywood goof who named you Moon Unit or Pilot Inspektor, you’re likely to share your name with many other people. Take me, for example. The family name Rees accounts for 15 percent of Welsh people – not to mention people descended from Welsh immigrants to the US, Canada, Australia. And it seems every other man of my generation is a Matthew.
Elsewhere in the world, people are more inventive. I had an Indian girlfriend in graduate school whose surname was Moorti. I noticed that her brother’s surname was Krishnamoorti. When I asked her to explain, she said that Indians could decide what their surname was themselves. That didn’t make much sense to me. So she just laughed and said I was “so Western.”
I’ve often confronted something similar in the Arab world, and it’s an element I’ve worked into my Palestinian crime novels – not just for cultural accuracy, but also as an important part of the plot. (But I won’t give away how!)
Arabs have a lengthy given name about which there’s relatively little choice. In the case of a Palestinian man, it’d be his name, followed by his father, grandfather, family and/or clan name. So my sleuth is Omar Yussef Subhi Sirhan.
But then there’s the tricky issue of the “kunya.” That’s when an Arab is known as “Abu-something”. Abu means “father of.” Traditionally a man is obliged to call his first son after his father. So even before his first son is born, if his father’s name was Muhammad, he’d be known as Abu Muhammad. (He’d actually be the son of Muhammad and only nominally the father of a future Muhammad…. But faith counts for everything, doesn’t it.)
My father’s name is David, so in Bethlehem I used to be known as “Abu Dahoud,” the Father of David. A few of my friends there were a little confused when I named my first son Cai. “Doesn’t your father object?” one of them asked.
My Omar Yussef is no traditionalist, so he decided to name his son Ramiz. Which wasn’t his father’s name. That means most people in the novels who want to show him respect and, at the same time, familiarity, call him Abu Ramiz.
It works the same way for women, though they’re tied to the name of their husband. Omar Yussef’s wife Maryam is called Umm Ramiz – the mother of Ramiz. No matter what her father was named.
So Abu refers to your father’s name, probably, and your son’s name, certainly.
Except when it doesn’t.
Sometimes the kunya is political nom de guerre. Yasser Arafat, who had no sons, called himself Abu Ammar, after one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. It had a classical ring and also tied him to the early Muslim holy warriors.
A pal of mine who’s a big shot in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine calls himself Abu Leilah – Father of the Night. I once asked him if he had a daughter Leilah, and why he wasn’t named after his father even if he had no sons. “No,” he smiled, “I don’t have a daughter with that name. I just thought Father of the Night was an exciting name. Mysterious, you know.”
Some time later I was in the Lebanese town of Tripoli, investigating an uprising there by Islamic fighters who had returned from Afghanistan to battle the Lebanese army. The rising had been led by another Abu Leilah. He’d been killed by the army. I asked his family if he’d also thought Father of the Night was an exciting name.
“No,” one of them said, looking at me as though I had suggested the dead man was less than purely heroic. “His eldest girl is called Leilah.”
You can’t win, see.
Of course, in Arab society most men don’t want to carry a girl’s name and I never quite figured out why the Tripoli rebel did it. After all, for Palestinians, “Abu al-Banat” (Father of the Girls) is an insult aimed at men who haven’t been able to father any sons.
This is all the kind of thing that caused trouble with the US “no-fly” lists after 9/11. Perfectly innocent Abu Muhammads and Abu Ahmads, the Tom Smiths and Bob Joneses of the Muslim world, were suddenly
indistinguishable from people considered a danger to the nation. Including the real Omar Yussef, a friend of mine from Bethlehem.
My contribution to all this naming confusion is that in the UK I’m published as Matt Rees, while in the US I use my middle name and am therefore Matt Beynon Rees.
Why? Because I decide who I am.
Except when I’m in Bethlehem. There I’m “Abu Cai.”