What’s in a name?

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At Alborz prep school in Tehran, my literature professor didn’t care about teaching. He would sit in the back of the classroom napping, while students took turns, round robin, reading lines from the textbook. One day he asked us for our first names and gave their etymologies. I never imagined my name was anything more than a tribute to the blacksmith hero in Ferdowsi’s Persian epic Shahnameh.

Kaveh, the blacksmith

Kaveh, his blacksmith’s apron as a banner, liberating the Iranian people from the Hitler-like king Zahhak

Do parents choose names in search of their children? My father wasn’t a poet, but he chose sound over meaning. He named his second son Kavoos, an unjust king in Shahnameh, and ended up naming his other sons with Persian words beginning with “ka.” In the Quran, God taught Adam the names of all things; even the angels didn’t know the names. Do we carry the weight of the words with us? Words that hail us and we keep like an address. Do they hold us responsible? You call a tree not by name but type. Our names aren’t unique or proper. Kaveh is just a popular name; everyone loves a hero.

When I came to the United States, I was afraid of my last name, GhaneaBassiri ( قانع بصیری ). During the hostage crisis, I didn’t want my name to make everyone pause. So I became Bassiri. I told my father, who was disappointed, because now I was a fallen branch under some other family tree. I told him, we don’t even know how to write our name. Why do you capitalize the B like a tower in the middle of the word? Is it two words or one? I wasn’t convinced by the brand my grandfather had chosen. I didn’t believe in being “content” (Ghanea) “with discernment or insight” (Bassiri) — I wanted more. A name isn’t a number. I wanted to find myself in America without a past, my name a shadow cast by my hand. Wanted everyone to recognize me the way you recognize a cypress tree — by its characteristics. The cypress stands tall and slender in Persian poetry, with turtledoves making their home in its branches, never leaving. In Islam, God has 99 names, which are really His attributes.

Cover of Elementary English textbook

My grandmother came to America carrying her father’s last name, “Gharib” ( قریب ). In Persian it means close, relative. The two letters “Q” ( ق ) and “Gh” ( غ ) sound the same in Persian. But they are different in their Arabic origin. So many words can sound the same when you dress them in another language. We pronounce ق ( Q ) as غ (Gh). We hear only Gh. But the word remembers. It’s like a tribe from ancient Arabia, with its three-letter family tent migrating to Tehran, where it now lives at the foot of Alborz. My grandmother spelled her last name as Gharib, because that is how she heard it, because that is what they told her. Gharib meaning غریب, meaning expatriate, alien, lonely, exotic, not at home. She had brought the key and forgotten the address. And my grandmother, who didn’t watch ABC News’ nightly count of the days, became Gharib, a stranger with an elementary course in English textbook by her bedside, as she moved between her sons’ homes. Grandmother, did you introduce yourself as, I am Gharib, when you entered the adult education English class? Did you say Gharib like Gharb as in “West”? We are still debating if we are speaking Persian or Farsi. How are we the custodians that carry words to English? If I say I believe in Allah, do you think I believe in a different God? How do you translate God? My grandmother believed in Hafez in Iran and believed in Hafez in America. If you trust in words as attributes, you will go on calling for your grandmother, following all the signposts on the road, not knowing where you are going.

Poets in Persian use a penname (Takhallus) and write their poems with it. Hushang Ebtehaj is called Shadow or Shade. Some have taken a common word and made it theirs. Rumi (from Rome) who settled in Anatolia wasn’t really from Rome. In Persian, Mowlavi or Mollana (our master and protector) means the poet Rumi. I was writing a series of poems about my grandmother to see her again, and I found her father, a professor of literature, a great grandfather I never met. I visited his old house, now a national heritage site empty of books, like an empty dress left beside the street. I am your Gharib, great-grandfather. How can you be so close and so far away? Rumi says to the novice, lose yourself by falling in love, drown in it; love is your purpose. But to those who have experienced love, he only complained of longing and separation. Listen to the reed, he said, the sound my father also loved the most. Rumi wrote so many poems just to keep his Shams near, Shams, whose name means the sun, who was a stranger, a friend dressed as a stranger.

We are all foreigners here. We are the ones who pack the groceries, who clean the streets, who build the houses across the way. This is the word I want to bring to you, English, where we live as strangers together. How can you get from Gharib to Qarib if you don’t know where the words come from, if you don’t remember? Where do we go to find ourselves? Rumi says if you are cut from the source you want to go back. Levinas says, “justice can be established only if I, always evaded from the concept of the ego, always destituted and divested of being, always in non-reciprocatable relationship with the other, always for the other, can become an other like the others.” Where will you go to not be lost and startled by the words like the announcer saying Abu Abu Gh Ghrieb… on the news? How should I talk to Him in Arabic if I don’t know the language? For the path from Qarib to Gharib is to remember.

 

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Featured image is of my grandmother, Sedigh Gharib.

The public domain image of Kaveh is from a World War II propaganda postcard, which was also part of the British Library show “Propaganda: Power and Persuasion.”

Quote from Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, translated by Alphonso Lingis (160-161).

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