Creative Corner: My name is a four-letter word

Ever since I was twelve, Ive had the names of all of my future children determined. And I dont mean a name or two — I have about seven picked out for each gender. This is partly because fantasizing about the future is part of being a little girl and partly because my parents choice of name for me has scarred me for life.

Apparently, when my parents found out they were expecting, nine months just werent enough for them to choose a name. For two weeks after my birth, I was referred to as the baby. My mother says this is because my father hated every name that she suggested. My father says that she never suggested any.

Eventually, with the help of my grandmother, they chose the name Lama. In Arabic, the name means the darkness of lips.

When I asked my mother about the reason behind this name, she said, Well, when you were born, your face was literally just a small round circle with a gigantic pair of red lips. Everyone who saw you thought you were blowing a kiss at them. She laughed, then paused for a few moments before adding, There was a popular song at the time called Lama Yalli Habaita. It means Lama, the girl I loved. Sweet, isnt it?

I raised my eyebrow. You turned on the radio and decided to name me after the first song you heard, didnt you?

She laughed and called me an idiot.

Growing up in Dubai, my name was simple and easy to remember, though my family never really used it. To them, I was always known as Mimi — a nickname they developed for me when I was just a few months old.

Many ask how my parents got the nickname Mimi out of the name Lama. The truth is, they didnt. The nickname has nothing to do with my legal name. When I was born, there was a famous Arabic actress by the name of Mimi Jamal. Coincidentally, my fathers name also happens to be Jamal. Due to the fact that in the Arab culture people often refer to a person by their first name followed by their fathers name, I became Mimi Jamal, a joke that never quite ended.

In elementary school, I was always the only Lama in my class. My name became my trademark and I loved it —  until I moved to Canada.
I first realized that my name would be a problem when I walked through the immigration gates at the airport, and the man who took my passport glanced at my name and chuckled. Laaamaaa, here is your passport back, he said. I knew enough English to understand that he was probably wondering why any parent would name their child after an animal.

Soon enough, the nickname Mimi took over. I was Mimi everywhere and to everyone; even at school, on the attendance list. I used the nickname so often people became entirely unaware I had a different name. Lama had become the name I used only on legal documents, despite the many lectures that my parents gave me about cultural pride and such. I hated my name and it wasnt because I decided it was childish or silly.

Perhaps I could pinpoint one of the main reasons why I hate the name. One afternoon in grade eight, I sat in my homeroom class, waiting for my teacher to hand out report cards. I bit my bottom lip nervously and stared at the clock on the wall as the teacher, Mr. Lung, called out names.

One by one, students walked up to his desk, snatched their envelope from his fingers, opened it, glanced at it, then marched back to their desks with their heads hanging low. The few students who made the mistake of smiling after looking at their report card were met with growls and curses from every corner in the classroom.

I stomped my feet against the ceramic floor and rocked back and forth in my chair. Mr. Lung had called out all the students, except for a few. In an attempt to make time go by faster, I put my head down on the desk and closed my eyes. Moments later, Mr. Lungs hoarse laughter filled the silence.

Well, look at that! Theres a Llama on the attendance list. I didnt know I had animals in my class!

I peeked up for a few seconds and saw his chest heave with laughter. The class instantly joined along.

Who the hell is that? asked Michael, who sat next to me I kept my head down.

It must be a mistake, Mr. Lung said before looking at the attendance list once more. After a short pause, he cleared his throat and resumed calling out names, until everyone but me had received their report card.

Mimi, they didnt send yours down, I guess, he said. I raised my head slowly.

They did, I replied.

No, I only have the Llama left on here. He giggled again, and then stopped abruptly when he caught a glimpse of my reddening face.

Thats not you, right? Mr. Lung winced as his cheeks flushed a deep red. I stood up, walked to his desk, took my report card and sped out of the class without looking back.

I remember pressing my hands tightly against my ears to drown out the bursts of laughter coming from the open door behind me.

When I went home, and for three years after that, I begged my parents to legally change my name.

Please! I would whine. Its my name. Honestly, whats it to you?

No! my mother would roar back.

Why not?!

Because, its your name, we gave it to you, and youre not changing it just because some idiot doesnt know how to say it.

But Mom! I groaned back, usually in tears at this point., You dont know what I go through! You have no idea because you were lucky enough to have a name like Mona! Why couldnt you name me something nice like that?

What, you want me to name you? Mona? Lets trade names, she snickered.

Can you take me seriously for once? Honestly, its the worst thing that has ever happened to me!

Her reply was always the same.

Youll thank me later, she would say before walking away.

I couldnt imagine that I ever would.

For years, I dreaded introducing myself to people. I never knew which name to use. I had to use Lama with Arab adults, just to save my parents the embarrassment of being ridiculed for a daughter with a name as ridiculous as Mimi — so my mother would say. She didnt understand that when I introduced myself as Lama, it almost felt like I was introducing someone else.

Over time, I grew to believe that it actually was someone else. In fact, at the doctors office, when my name was called, I would often look around me in annoyance and wonder why the person theyre calling wont get up.

As I got older, having two names started becoming a real hassle. It annoyed me that I couldnt leave a regular message on my answering machine to let the caller know they have reached the right person. It annoyed me that other Arab girls had easy names. It annoyed me that my parents wouldnt understand.

But, despite my tears and several empty threats to stop loving them, I knew deep down it really wasnt their fault. Neither was it Mr. Lungs. But could I really ever expect two cultures to be compatible?

As a child, I did. Now, I suppose not.

During my last year of high school, I found a part-time job as a cashier at a mens clothing store in a local mall. As a part of my duties, I had to save the names of all new customers into the stores database. One day, after ringing up one customers items, I asked him for his name. The man hesitated for a few moments.

Why do you need my name? he asked.

Its just store policy, sir. Its confidential and we will never give out to third-parties.

Well. He paused, then let out an exasperated sigh. Okay. First name or last name?

Both, please.

Theyre kind of… long. Are you sure you want them both?

Please, I nodded impatiently. My last name is fourteen letters long and I share my first name with an animal. His name couldn’t possibly be any more embarrassing.

As the man spelled out each letter of his name, he kept his gaze fixated on the floor tiles. He spoke slowly and every time I thought he was finished, there were more letters to come. His first name was twenty-one letters long. His last name was forty-eight.

He let out an embarrassed giggle and then hurried out of the store. I stared at the sequence of letters on the screen in front of me. At least my first name only has four letters.

After navigating my way through several part-time jobs and interacting with people of various ethnicities, it became obvious to me that my name is not quite as strange as I thought. Sure, its different; possibly even unique. But somehow, a name becomes much less discomfiting when a person is old enough to realize that thats all it really is: a name. Nothing more, nothing less. Its a persona, but not an identity. Its what people know me as, but not who they know me to be. Its just a name. A name that I have become proud of.

Perhaps it was the three years of university that made me realize that. Perhaps it was the numerous people who found the name and its meaning to be cute rather than appalling. Or perhaps it was the gleam of pride on my parents faces that every time I introduced myself to others as Lama.

I still occasionally introduce myself as Mimi. Once, when I noticed that a professor of mine was reluctant to call my name in fear of offending me, I walked up to her after class and gave her the choice of using Mimi instead.

Its my nickname and its easier for many people. I really dont mind either name. Im used to both, I told her.
She smiled, thought about it for a few seconds and then shook her head.

Why dont we just stick with your real name? she said in a professional-like manner. I shrugged and told her that it was entirely her choice.

Next class, she still called me Mimi.

Today, Im still Mimi to most people, but only because those who are close to me find it difficult to adapt to any other name. My parents have now become the ones who laugh and tease me about my name. I pretend that I still get upset about it. Little do they know that my first son will be named Jamal and my first daughter will be named Mona — right after their amazing grandparents.

1 comment

  1. I’m not surprised that I enjoyed this article so much Mimi!
    You have always been a great writer and I know you will keep getting better until the day you publish your first book (Inshallah ;)).
    I was definitely able to relate to your story considering I also have a “different” name, and I’m positive that there are many others who are or will be captivated by your humorous yet emotional piece.

    Well done :)

    Golbarg *

  2. Hi,
    My name was Mona and I changed it. I would always, ALWAYS got teased about Mona Lisa in school and as a adult. At least if the painting were of an attractive woman, I might not have minded as much. Also there were other names that I would get teased about names or things that sounded like Mona, or people would just think its ok to say my name in an obnoxious way. Anyway, I had enough. My name did scar me for life and I am really happy that I changed it. My parents did not have to go around with the name they named me, nor did either of them spend more than a fleeting minute considering what to name me. I asked my mother why she named me Mona and she said she couldnt remember. I have several pets and I can remember the reason for why I chose the name for each and every one of them. I finally decided that I can name myself since I did spend a long time(decades) thinking about my name, compared to the half -minute each of my parents spent on deciding on my name. I feel like I waited way too long to change my name and I’m so glad that I did.

  3. Wow what an awesome piece! Loved reading it- I could totally relate.

    I also have a difficult name to pronounce and I’ve gotten sooo many different pronunciations of it, that its made me weary (Lip gloss, santa claus, Iglas, etc etc). But my response has been different.

    For me, I’m proud of my name and the fact that it represents me. Muslims and non-Muslims alike have often told me that they’ve never heard of my name before, and it makes me happy to be unique. It reminds me of the story my parents told me, of my dad opening the Quran and flipping through it find the Surah Ikhlas, which means sincerity of faith

    People often ask me, do you have a nickname, like something easier to pronounce. And I firmly tell them no. I patiently repeat it until they get it. And they usually do. They’re just scared of trying.

    But I totally know where you’re coming from.

  4. I share the name Lama too, and I realized that it is pronounced so differently in the Canadian accent (Laaamaaa) when I came to Canada. I had many similar embarrassing stories where people asked me if my name is like the ‘animal name’. However, I really love my name and think it is one of the best gifts that my parents gave me. All Arabs tell me that my name is very modern, cute, and just awesome!!

    When people ask me, I pronounce my name in my own Arabic way and let them pronounce it the way they want. Then, I clarify that this is not the way I pronounce it but I will accept that lol!

Leave a reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here