Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Power of Names

"What's your last name?"

It may seem silly, but I dread this question. I dread questions that would lead to a long and involved answer which is something I don't like to partake of, especially when the interrogator is a (friendly) stranger. You see I don't exactly have what you might call a traditional Jawa last name. Not technically anyway but I'll expand on that bit in a sec. So what is a traditional Jawa last name? In 99% of Jawas in this country you can tell where they come from simply from knowing their last names. Indonesians and Malays in general don't have surnames in the Saudi sense. So when they migrate to the magic kingdom most of them use their point of origin as the surname. Felimban, Kalantan and Banjar are amongst the most wide spread. While most of us Jawas have very tenuous links with our ancestral homes, we still carry the old monikers.

I don't have one of those. Or rather I do but they're not on my identification papers. Long story short: when my father was naturalized some government regulation made him drop the surname (Or maybe dad just dropped it on his own. I don't know. He's not around anymore for me to ask) so we're using my great grand dad's name as a family name (which is actually more in accordance to how it's done in the old country). I have to go through that whole explanation every time someone asks about my surname and getting confused about it. Gets annoying and tedious after a while.

Recently however, I noticed my little brother using our long forgotten Jawa name whenever he could. Always identifying himself as an Ampenan. He also hinted to me once that he would like to make it our official surname.

While I didn't explicitly agree (didn't explicitly reject either), I could understand where he was coming from. Names have power. They tell you who you are, where you come from. Gives you a sense of identity and history, and anchors you firmly on solid ground. It says you belong, are part of something larger. Especially in a country like Saudi Arabia where tribal law still rules the community. "Who are you?" is almost always followed by "Who are your people?" in this land. I've learned through the years not to let it bother me much. Yet still, like an itch that longs to be scratched, the longing is there.


John Burgess said...

I understand what you're saying, but differ.

When my father's birth was registered, his surname (Bourgoise) was anglicized to Burgess. His parents and his siblings names, as recorded on official documents, remained Bourgoise. It is thought that the change came about because the recording official thought my father would have an easier time of it with the English form of the name rather than the French as French-Canadians (of which my father is one) were socially and economically second-class citizens in New England at the time.

I know exactly which Burgesses are related as they are exactly my siblings and my cousins who have also gone with the anglicization. That rather pleases me.

Amy said...

AA -

My father has an adopted name, which gives me fits to no end. I tend to be associated with Germans somewhat unfairly--I don't know that I have a bit of German blood, but since my parents were stationed there in the 70's and I studied the language in HS I sort of "feel" German more than anything else. Tracing other names I'm mostly English, maybe a bit of Irish.

But as a convert, a white convert to Islam, a lot of people ask with fascination, "So where are YOU from" to which I can only reply, "here." Or, the city in which I live (where I've lived all my life), the state, or the country. And some people get really into it, "No, but where are your parents from?"

See how I've lost all ancestral ties? I don't even know, and even my name is worthless because my dad adopted it and gave it to his wife and all the kids and I don't really have relatives by that name. And yet we've lost almost all contact with my dad's side of the family (pre-adoption.)

So I know what you mean that a name as power. My last name because it fails to identify me, is rather meaningless to me. But another thing I face is people asking me to change my first name (to something "Islamic" whatever that means). And I won't do it, because no matter where I go, I can at least cling to that to say no, I was not born as a Muslim and I have this Franco-Anglo but fully American name.. three little letters.

But my surname could sink into the ocean and I might not even notice. :-)

Saudi Stepford Wife-Daisy said...

I had a terrible, foreign sounding name by American standards(both first and last) and lived in the land of whitey. There was NO ethnicity to speak of where I lived and everyone was named Jennifer Jones and Mike Smith. I can just imagine that this is how you feel here amongst all the Al-Tribal's.
My hubby and I are kinda in the same boat with our surnames. Al-Hassa isn't so tribe-proud as the rest of Saudia so there are many who've lost there "tribal" surnames here, like my hubby's family. Also, back in the days someone changed his name by ONE letter which means his name doesn't have ANY meaning at all. This is problematic! It also means that anyone with his surname is definitely related to him. The same thing happened to my family back in the "old country" which means 100%, anyone with my surname is a guaranteed relative.
Although my first name fits in well here, my last name causes just as much commotion as it did in America. But I refuse to change it, it's my heritage. I also get uptight when new Muslims feel compelled to change their names to Arabic names, there's no reason one must give up their heritage (as long as there name isn't directly in contention with Islam like the name "Christine" or "Christopher") to feel as if they "fit in" with the general Muslim population.

أبو سنان said...

John has a point with names here in the USA. The most common name is Smith. Seeing that one might be tempted to think all Smiths were of English origin. This would be false.

Many German immigrants were named Schmidt, but were anglicised to Smith when they came to the USA.

Anyway, my mother in law is part Jawa. She was born in Mecca but her mother was half Indonesian. Her father's family is well known in the area, but as she looks very Asian she still gets questioned even though she has a well known surname.

My father in law's side of the family came from Yemen to the Hijaz some 90 years ago. When they came to Saudi they dropped their Yemeni surname of al-Ashbot and adopted their area of origin from Yemen as their last name.

As to Amy's comments, I have been asked many times if I am Palestinian because I am tall, very white, with blond hair and blue eyes, but I speak Arabic.

Then the questions come as to where I learned Arabic, why I traveled in the Middle East, who I am married to.

Now that I am in the Metro DC I get Arabs thinking I am with the CIA, DIA, FBI, every organisation you can think of because how else would a white guy speak Arabic?

It is amazing that as we get more and more global people's "explainations" become more and more complicated.

I feel sorry for my kids, father a white guy/American(of German acnestry), mommy is Saudi, but her father is from Yemen, mother part Jawi.

My explaination will be easy compared their theirs!

أبو سنان said...

Oh, and I am with Saudi Stepford Wife. I didnt change my name when I converted. There was no need to.

I do go by the Muslim name Malik, but that is mainly because my eral name is rather hard for my wife' Arabic speaking family to get their tongues around.

No need to change your culture when you change religions. This is like the people who think they must start wearing thiab when they convert, or must only eat kabobs.

Amy said...

You mean I don't have to eat hummous at every meal!?

Isn't it neat how it seems like almost as many people have names that don't fit in, as do? Maybe one day names will just be words and we'll all be so intermarried it won't matter where we're from.

Kristalchampagne said...

Its interesting to learn of your origin. I will come back for more read.


Mohzart said...

I'm the same as you. My original surname was changed from Batubara to my great grandfather(x4)'s name Mukhtar. Though I dont completely understand why my grandfather changed it, he once told me that a government official (a very very long time ago) wrote his name down as Mukhtar instead because it was easier to trying to spell out Batubara in arabic. I dont completely believe his story though. One day I'll find out for sure.

Generic Viagra said...

Many people never think that names can be about anything, we are not born to be named in a specif way.

Lion said...

Most Javanese in Java does not have family name. Some tribes in Indonesia have family names, such as Batakist, Manado, and Timor.