The room is large, square, bright and full of little girls. Shoes squeak, children squeal, sound multiplies on the shiny tile. The ceiling is a pyramid of windows that allows the sun to shimmer in the artificially cool air. Alcoves at each corner of the square lead to hallways which lead to classrooms. The space smells of lemon cleaner.
I sit on a bench along the wall. One small person speed walks toward me. Two follow, then three and more until all around me are little girls, four, five, six deep: around, beside, above, at my feet.
Where are you from?
What is your mother's name? Your father's?
Ahhhh. They want to know my secrets.
In Arab culture a person's name is a storyboard chock full of information. It reveals lineage, history, life, death and a whole lotta stuff in between. Who, what, when, where…if you only knew how to read it.
Here's how it works:
- The eldest son is named after the paternal grandfather
- The eldest daughter is named after the paternal grandmother
- Subsequent children are given names that reflect a desirable trait or commemorate an important person in the tribe
- Following the name comes the word bin ("son of") or bint ("daughter of") and Dad's name
- Following Dad's name comes bin and Dad's Dad's name
- Then comes bin and Dad's Dad's Dad's name
- And so on and so forth, ending with the family's tribal name
Sometimes multiple tribal names are added that include sub-tribe or nicknames that tell more of the family's story.
For example, the name of a first son of first sons in the (fictional) Al Nazy tribe would look like this:
Qataris can "read" another local's name and immediately transcribe relationships, rights to one another, familial boundaries and more: how are we related? are we friends or enemies? "marriageable" to one another?
It's the Middle Eastern answer key to Kevin Bacon's Six Degrees of Separation.
"Any one person (including me, Kevin Bacon) is connected to any other person through six or fewer relationships, because it's a small world."
To protect a person's name and to show extra respect, Qataris call one another by a nickname that describes an achievement (ie, "Hajj" for someone who's completed the Hajj) or use a person's kunya. The kunya refers to a person through their first male child, whether born or unborn.
For example, Ahmed Al Nazy (any of them, above) is Bu* Mahmoud (father of Mahmoud). Local men of all ages refer to one another using the kunya.
If you want to know an Arab national's kunya, ask, "Abu man?" or "Um man?"
- Qatari passports list 3-5 generations
- Women don't change their names when they marry; they are always associated with their fathers and their birth family
- It's traditional to give a gift to the child when a baby is named for you
- A child's kunya is Um/Bu (father's name)
- When a woman marries, her kunya changes from Um (her father's name) to Um (her husband's father's name)
- Women reserve use of the kunya for older women
- A man uses the kunya to address all women
- Qataris do not name children for themselves - as long as they're living
- If a son's name and his father's name are the same, it means the father died before the son was born
- Qataris also refer to one another as "sister" (ikhty) or "brother" (ukhooy) or in the case of older women, "aunt" (khalti) or older men, "uncle" ('ammi)
- A person converting to Islam is not required to change his/her name - unless the name conflicts with Islamic teachings/values
All of this seems pretty complicated when you're from a place where children are named for parents, movie stars or according to the latest trends: North West, Apple, River, Dakota.
"You mean it's just a pretty sound?" She shakes her head, takes me on a tour around the table: Noor means light. Ashwaq is a deep, enduring kind of love. Miriam comes from the Bible as well as the Koran. Jooahar is a precious jewel and Loolooah means pearl.
As for me and that troop of little girls:
"I am Lucinda bint Charles bin Charles Hedrick.
I am bint Beggy.
I am Um Chris.
I am Um Katie and Um Kimber.
I am Jedda Krissy and Jedda Killian.
I am ikht wo khaalah."
"But you can call me Cindi."
Beautiful Babies, named for family, in thanksgiving and to make a pretty sound.
They call me "Mom."
*In Classical Arabic the word for "Father" is Ab and "Mother" is Um. Gulf Arabs say Yubba ("Father") and Yumma ("Mother"). For the kunya, this is shortened to Bu and Um.
**The information in this post comes from personal experience, local interaction and a class I took at Fanar called "Swalif" (Conversation).