What’s in a Name?

Elias. Esmael. Where does your mind go when you hear these names? 

One day, many years ago, my baby brother came home from school crying. He was nine. Though not the most studious little boy, he had, for once, received the highest grade on a test. His teacher announced this to his fourth-grade class by saying “Guess who had the highest grade? Our very own little terrorist Mohamed Alloo.”

“Why did you name me Mohamed?” he asked my parents. “Why did you name him Mohamed?” we asked my parents. That day, he and my mother explored 100 new names for him at his request. But at the end, they couldn’t find one that suited him better than Mohamed. 

The only famous Muhammad I knew of at the time in the country was Muhammad Ali – the witty, proud, heavyweight boxing champion who actually chose to name himself Muhammad in America. “Cassius Clay is a slave name,” he said. “I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name…and I insist people use it when people speak to me.” On the other hand, this Muhammad was also stripped of his titles, banned from boxing, sentenced to prison, and labeled as an “unpatriotic, ungrateful, disgrace to his country” for refusing to fight in Vietnam because of his beliefs. 

I myself had the name “Nushin.” And though, people butchered and forgot my name frequently, I often remained ethnically and religiously ambiguous. Many times, I used this to my advantage as I traveled the world. My brother, though, couldn’t ever really escape his name. Little did I know that I would later marry an “Ahmed Mohamed” who then became the father to our two little boys. 

The world we live in doesn’t like “Mohameds.”

Elias MohamedEsmael Mohamed. Now what are you thinking? Have I branded my kids for life? 

Their names didn’t come without a struggle, and their names almost weren’t. The world we live in doesn’t like “Mohameds.” Sure, they are cute and cuddly now. But what about when they become teenagers, or worse, full-grown men, with “Mohamed” written on their resumes and passports?

A few years ago, when I was working for the State Department in Lebanon, a new US Green Card holder, Mr. Mohamed, informed me that he would be changing his name before moving to America. Mr. Mohamed would now be known as “Mr. James Bond,” and his wife as “Mrs. Bond.” I remember a few of us almost laughing at this request. Why would he do that? However, when I revisit this story now through my lens of motherhood, I see Mr. Mohamed was trying to give his family a name that would set them up for success in America by hiding their origins.

Elias BondEsmael Bond. “Terrorist” isn’t something you think about when you read these names.

If you have never consciously had to think about whether your name will make you a target or disadvantage you, consider yourself very fortunate. The thoughts that run through my head almost every day now are – will my children face the same challenges as my husband and brother? The red flag on every boarding pass marking them as potential threats to security. Two-hour detentions separated from our family during each trip abroad. Harassment by law enforcement for their darker skin and Egyptian-afro hair amplified by a Muslim name. Will they be able to run for office without a smear campaign? Will they have the same access to jobs and opportunities? Will there be a time come where they are rounded into internment camps?

If you have never consciously had to think about whether your name will make you a target or disadvantage you, consider yourself very fortunate. 

Elias MohamedEsmael MohamedWill society judge them by their names or who they are as people?

Yes, I thought through these scenarios before naming ourchildren. I still think about them a great deal today. In the end I decided to give my husband’s last name to my children – also the name of my brother and my grandfather. Esmael and Elias are the sons of refugees expelled from Uganda, of voyagers that braved the Indian Ocean on dhows to escape famine, of villagers from the most destitute corners in Egypt, of islanders escaping revolution and forced-marriage in Zanzibar, and of immigrants that made America their new home. Our history is in our name. Our heritage. 

Did we make the right decision? There is always the possibility that my boys will come to me 10 years from now, defeated and disillusioned, asking me, “Mommy, why did you name me Mohamed?” And I might regret what I have done. Because I knew that their names, though honoring our identity, would also cause them pain. 

My advice to my children: People might hate you for your name, they may shun you for what they think you believe and punish you for who they think you are. You might suffer consequencesI cannot and do not even want to imagine. But despite all this, bethe greatest like Muhammad Ali, be resilient like your father Ahmed Mohamed, be hard-working like your grandfather Mohamed Hussein, and be clever like your Uncle MohamedAlloo. Stay proud. Do what is right and not what is easy. Do not have the same bias for others as they may have for you. You will be the one that walks away with peace of mind and peace of heart.

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours… get used to me.”

– Muhammed Ali previously known as Cassius Clay

Nushin Alloo is a global strategist, writer, and former U.S. diplomat. Born in California, she has lived abroad in Egypt, Lebanon, India, Ghana, the United Arab Emirates, and Syria. She was inspired to write The Adventures of Laila and Ahmed in Syria after the start of the Syrian civil war, while working with the country’s displaced refugees in Jordan and Greece.

Nushin is also the founder of Beauty Beneath the Rubble, a project to help change the narrative of places associated with conflict through the power of storytelling and art. She wants her child and others to learn about and appreciate the beautiful cultures and historical monuments that are vanishing in many conflict areas. Nushin holds master’s degrees in Arabic from the University of Maryland and University of Damascus, as well as an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.