“What’s your name?” my friend asked this new guy in my college.
“My name’s Musthafa,” he replied, and immediately upon seeing the white guy’s expression he added. “You know, like Mufasa in The Lion King?”
My friend laughed and nodded his head, reinvigorated at the sound of a name that was familiar to him. He didn’t know Musthafa, but he’d said Mufasa several times in his life.
I’ve often wondered if this Indian guy had considered changing his name. But today, almost a year later, I realize that’s not the only option. There are in fact three.
Replace. Rename. Or Retain.
What would you choose?
About a week into my new life in a Canadian college, my classmate said that he’d introduce me to his friend Marshall. “I think he’s from the Middle East as well!”
Before I could wonder about that, we met the guy at a bench next to the campus. Upon talking to me, Marshall’s eyes lit up. “You’re a Mallu?”
I said I was, thinking perhaps he had an affinity to the folks from Kerala. And then he switched to Malayalam.
I had several questions in my mind now, but the conversation was moving along. Later, as we were about to split, he asked for my phone number. When I was saving his contact, he stopped me. “Save it as Suhail,” he said.
“Wait, I thought your name was Marshall?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “No man, that’s just what I tell the white people here. It’s easier for them!”
“So – so you made up an entirely new name?” I asked, wondering if that was even possible.
“Sure, you can do that. You just have to go to your college profile and type in your preferred name. They’ll call you whatever you are comfortable with!”
I’d seen that column on my profile page. But I’d never stopped to think why it was actually there.
This Malayali guy who’d been raised in the Gulf had come to Canada a year ago, and quickly decided on the name “Marshall”. He’d replaced his name, at least in certain circles of his life.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.
The truth is, I didn’t have time to really think about it. I was still getting adjusted to a new life in a new country halfway across the world. There were far too many things happening on a daily basis.
The topic reemerged a few weeks later. My buddy Musthafa was going for ice skating, and as he recalls it, stopped to talk to a 70-year-old security guard. The white-haired white guy looked like a sweet old grandpa, and he talked with all the warmth and sincerity of one. By the time they’d finished chatting, he asked for his new friend’s name again.
“It’s Musthafa, you know, like Mufasa in Lion King.”
The reference wasn’t as fresh for this man as it was for a college student, and he asked what his full name was out of curiosity.
“Oh, it’s a long one,” the fellow said, chuckling. “It’s Mohamed Musthafa Azeez!”
“Ooh, that’s a mouthful!” the security guard said. “I – I’m going to have to write that one down. There’s no way I’ll be able to remember it.”
As he got back into his security booth outside the ice skating parking lot, the guard brought up an idea that would be raised by several of his countrymen over the next few weeks.
“You should think of a nickname!” he said as he began spelling out my name.
“Oh, really? I’ve never had a nickname before. Have any ideas?” his younger friend asked politely.
He stopped writing to stand straight and ponder. “How about Moose?”
Suddenly he was pitching in a Mad Men office, and his audience of one was supposed to consider it and try to verbalize why the name didn’t really sit well with him. Even though he wasn’t sure of it himself.
Musthafa never went by Moose. You could say it never caught on, but that wouldn’t be accurate. The nickname died on the same spot it was born, a couple of miles from the main campus where he studied.
If it had caught on, it would have been a case of a person renaming themselves. This isn’t an academic dissertation, so these are just terms that I’ve coined from my limited experience. Many people rename themselves, which on the surface perhaps makes better sense than the first option. There is no question of shedding the identity you had that was shaped by the word your parents uttered with pride for the first time to their loved ones as they held you in their arms.
Instead, it’s meant to be a compromise. Or perhaps even an evolution. Like chai tea or the sweet-tasting butter chicken that is consumed in Canada by those who profess to love Indian cuisine.
I already had an issue with the concept of renaming. It didn’t catch me off-guard the way the idea of replacing did. That’s because I’ve seen and read stories of people in the West who go by Mo(e).
Only when you push past the acquired accent and see the photographs that don’t normally populate their Instagram feed does it dawn on you.
Their name is Mohammed!
And the moment you hear that the entire facade falls away. Yes, this is just my opinion, and perhaps there is a slim chance that this article’s Instagram post is flooded with angry comments from Moes. To them I’d say, I don’t mean to capture your thought process. I’m merely projecting my own. For when I see you go about as Moe, it stirs within me this deep-seated emotion that springs from the gut without any tangible reason.
I can’t help but feel that you are pretending. Or worse, that you are ashamed. Or more confusingly, you are afraid. When I hear that your name is actually Mohammed, it’s like I’ve snatched away your Scooby-Doo villain mask, but without any explanation as to why.
Why did you have to rename yourself? Why?
I have a dear friend named Osama. See, I don’t even need to complete that sentence, because you probably know where I’m going with it. Yes, he was in school when the Twin Towers came down. What was until that moment a nice, simple name turned into a terrible burden? A sword hanging over his future, one ready to decapitate his resume at any job interview. A time bomb that explodes whenever a person is introduced to him for the first time.
I can understand his desire to change his name. Or rename himself as Oz, maybe.
But this guy did neither. He stuck with it.
For some reason, that makes me happy. I feel like the supporter of a small-time football team cheering the fact that an important player didn’t abandon the club. Why though?
Does it really matter?
That brings us to the third option. Retaining your name.
I can’t explore all three options in an objective manner (as you might have understood by now!) The same thought process that spawned this article also ensures that I have a passionate opinion about the three options.
But it’s important to realize that I can only see things through a specific lens. There can be countless reasons why a person decides to replace their name or rename themselves. I’m sure many of them are justified and even commendable. I’m only going to talk about those that I find distasteful.
Remove emotions, cultural pride, and any literary, spiritual, or religious significance inherent in names, and think about the basic reasons why we choose between replacing, renaming, and retaining.
In any country, there will be names that are common, and those that aren’t. Say you are Unni is Kannur and nobody bats an eye. Say you are Unni in Saskatchewan and everybody will lose their minds. That’s understandable.
What’s up for debate, is whether we change that or not.
Over time, names rise or fall in terms of popularity. This can happen due to pop culture, but more commonly due to immigration. More white people are familiar with the name Priya today than they were four decades ago.
So when you step onto foreign soil and extend your hand, you have a choice to make. Do you advertise your name? Or do you hide it?
Sure, if you say your name is Musthafa, it’s not going to enter popular culture the next day. But remember, you’ll be speaking to countless people throughout your life. And each person you speak you will become familiar with your name.
Yes, they may pronounce it wrong. Or they may make a poor joke of how that’s a mouthful. But how long does that last? Five minutes? 20? What you get in return is that you normalize your name a little further.
You normalize yourself.
Because once they get used to pronouncing your name, it makes it easier for them to see you for who you are. You’ll feel less pressure to dress the way you’d have to with a replaced name. Instead of shaving your beard relentlessly every day to retain the fictional, dapper Moe, you can grow your beard and stake your identity as Mohammed. In this battle, Shakespeare is wrong. A name matters.
A name is the first person through the door. And if a name has to change or adapt, then everything that follows will have to as well. The way you talk, the way you laugh, the way you eat, the way you argue, the way you protest, the way you get angry.
Replace a handful of letters, and you stand the risk of altering your whole life.
Sure, that’s dramatic. And we have the liberty of thinking it’s dramatic because our world has adapted remarkably well to different cultures. If there’s anything that’s surprised me more than the fact that so many in Canada replace or rename themselves, it’s the fact that so many Canadians make sure they welcome you for who you are.
I was once in the middle of a bustling soup kitchen, and an elderly lady stopped next to be, a heavy tray in hand, just so that she could clarify my name. Because the strain in her hands didn’t matter as long as she felt strongly about respecting me and my identity.
There are professors in my college who take the time to pronounce everyone’s name the way they have to. They write it down phonetically and even practice before the next class, just so that they can utter the words correctly and usher in a welcoming environment.
I’m stating this not just to record my admiration, but also to urge anyone who may not know about this. When others are extending their hand to get to know you, why then hesitate and hide who you are?
Yes, I know the jokes about why it might be necessary to replace or rename yourself. “What if your name was Hardik Patel?”
But it’s not, is it? It’s Anshuman and Lalitanjali and Dhananjay. There may be names that sound awful when pronounced by different tongues, but the vast majority of names are simply unfamiliar. They are the names that can be uttered after a few tries. It might take a few days or even weeks. But that’s fine because you’ll have made it that much easier for your namesake who steps into the country a year from now.
And if you want to rename yourself because you truly identify with a nickname of some kind, go for it. But if you are laughing and having a great time with your buddies who refer to you by your nickname, only to then duck out to attend to a phone call from your friends back home, with a different expression on your face and a different sound coming from your mouth, I fear that you might not have evolved. There’s a different biological term that’s more appropriate. You’ve bisected. Into two halves, split across two countries and cultures, clothed differently. Sooner or later one half will wither and die away. And chances are it’ll be the one whose name is heard less often by you than the other.
So choose wisely. A name is not just an identifier. It’s the start of an identity.
Check out Marwan Razzaq’s debut novel, a fast-paced crime thriller called “The Man Who Found His Shadow.” It’s gotten great reviews, and can be found on Amazon!