What’s in a name?

Abeir Soukieh is an Arab-Australian poet and writer from Canberra who is currently completing her Masters in Anthropology at the Australian National University.

21227328_1785412928165861_5464927545755435008_n

Image: © Dušica Milutinović, 2017

When you grow up with a name that’s considered to be a ‘difficult’ one, you become highly attuned to the subtleties and intentions in people’s voices whenever they say your name or a variant thereof.

So, my name is Abeir and the only time I’ve ever encountered another Abeir in Canberra was earlier this year at Mediterranean Delights R Us when this other Abeir (dunno if she spells it that way) heard my mother say my name and was clearly just as shocked as I would’ve been to encounter another Abeir in these ‘ere waters that she was like, “What’s your name??” and I was like “Uh, Abeir,” and she was like, “I’m Abeir, too!” – it was amazing.

At that same time, I got a little worried because I know what it was like growing up here with my name.

Did she also have all of these memories;

of the teacher getting to her name during roll-call and pausing.  Then getting flustered.  Then getting angry.  Then getting angrier at a correction.
of A-beer, A-wine, A-vodka;
of VB;
of finishing a table group project in primary school and when it came time to write down everyone’s names on the group poster, having all of the kids around the table try and come up with as many ways to make fun of her name as they could.

Ha, they got about two columns out of it; I don’t think I’d ever seen them thinking so hard.  Then after they’d run out of ‘nicknames’ for me, they all stood there trying to figure out what to do next; I remember their eyes lighting up when they turned to the Sri Lankan boy sitting next to me…

Oh, fabulous.

We can do it to him, too.

We were lucky with the teacher that time, though. She came ‘round and told them to fix it.

But mi-ss

No, kids, fix it up.

Fi-ine.

Oof, they were so angry at us after that.  Positively seething.  All of that ‘hard work’, gone to waste.

For me, the worst part about it was when they shifted their focus to the boy sitting next to me.  While I did feel a sort of nice camaraderie with him in that moment, the feeling that most overwhelmed me was this sort of protectiveness over him.  I didn’t feel good that he suddenly became the target.  I’d rather they had kept it on me.  Because I could handle it.  Because I was used to it.  I didn’t know if he was.

This is what happens with the ‘difficult’ name thing.  You very thoroughly normalise it.  You do this because you constantly have to settle for whatever version other people feel comfortable with or risk being considered ‘difficult’ or ‘burdensome’ or, in the case above, ‘no fun’.  Which, as everyone knows, are very inconvenient things to be considered.

And I see this normalisation all the time from all sorts of people at all different ages and in all different positions in life; from children, to adolescents, to adults, to interviewers, to interviewees, to lawyers, to professors, to engineers,  the ‘Hello everyone, my name is – insert ‘difficult’ name here – please don’t worry about the pronunciation, just say it how you like…’

Meanwhile, in order to ‘get by’, the name Abbie became a useful sort of proxy for me.  It wasn’t my choice or anything, I was called Abby at some point by an aunty who didn’t want to say my actual name in public.  So, I was never particularly fond of it, nor was I attached to it in any way.  But I did make a sad little joke out of it whenever I was required to use it by spelling it differently each time.  Sometimes I was Abby, other times Abi, or Abbi; one random time I was Aby.

I sort of settled on Abbie recently, though.  I came to realise that it wasn’t actually the name itself I had trouble with, but the way people said it that played the biggest role in my detachment from/attachment to it.

Not unlike my relationship with my actual name; feeling a sort of distance from it until it was said by a particular person, or by particular people who didn’t say it angrily, or defensively or impatiently.

See, it becomes my name when I can hold onto it.  When it’s not floating away precariously in the ether or being tossed around like a volleyball.
When it’s grounded.
When it’s caught.

So, the poem below is about how the way people say your name can make you feel either more or less in possession of it; and, as a result, it can make you feel either more or less in possession of yourself.  For example, if they should take the time to pronounce it correctly, or even if they pronounce it incorrectly but kindly – unaccusingly – as though you, the referent, are associated warmly, valuably and respectfully with that name.

Like smoke between two palms
                          For the boys on the dock     

A sort of Rubik’s cube boldness in those colours
I watch them wrap around vowels with tenderness

welcoming all of those ‘throw-away’ syllables;

holding them;
voicing them;
catching them;

it was immediate–
my name was mine again.

© Abeir Soukieh, 2019