Our Stories: “Don’t Touch My Name”

The following is the first in a series of posts called Our Stories which highlight the rich tapestry of diverse experiences held by our incredible community: Queer and Trans Middle Eastern and/or North African individuals living in and around New York City.

Don’t Touch My Name

By: Ibrahim Khazzaka

Born in Lebanon, I was named after my grandfather.  Everyone in the Middle East understands the name homage, the name tribute to the patriarch.

In a way, we are expected to identify with our grandparents, to seek their strengths and equal their achievements.

I love my grandfather, he’s growing older to become a sterner man than how I remember him.  Still he did travel, met most of his career and social prestige goals. Carrying his name is heavy; everyone wanted me to be like him.  Yet, no one, not even he, showed me a way. Sometimes I was asked to round up my school grades to impress him, to be worthy of his blessing.

In Lebanon, “Ibrahim” was among the old names that people let go of for more trendy ones.  I remember at 13, a barber advised me to go for my nickname, Bob! Ibrahims in Lebanon are named “Bob” (don’t ask) to which I mocked him, saying “I’m keeping it as it is, it’s a beautiful name.”

Moving countries didn’t help.  From Dubai to LA, most mistook me for a Muslim, which definitely doesn’t help in the states, considering Islamaphobia in the recent years.

I brush off that remark, chuckle and answer, “Though not religious, I was raised Catholic,” or, “Actually, ‘Ibrahim’ is not a Muslim name, just Arabic for ‘Abraham’” and “Just replace the ‘I’ with an ‘E’, ‘Ee-Bra-Heem…EEE-BRA-HEEM’…see, easy, isn’t it?”

NOPE!  It was never easy, especially to those who are not exposed to other cultures.

In LA, I was advised to change my name on job applications, that many in the States will be freaked out and might reject my job application.  

At a gay bar, trying to hit on me, one guy asked me, “What’s your name,” snubbed me, and continued, “EE? EEbrahim? Well, if you must…”

People have squinted when I told them my name, thinking it was just my accent, repeated back in a Yankee twang, “Abraham, right? Nice to meet you, man!”

Moving to NY, I can’t express how happy I was when, at a Chase bank in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, a clerk pronounced my name as it is.  Deprived for years, I couldn’t help but mention how grateful I was that he got it right, something that keeps putting a smile on my face ‘til this day.

I admire everyone who made the effort to correctly pronounce my name, those who told me to embrace it, to be proud and true to myself.  To a certain extent, it feels like an act of political activism, challenging the status quo and celebrating cultural richness.

We all should give each other the dignity of our names, our pasts and values.  We should ask people around us what their names mean to them, who they are after, what it means to change their names for the sake of assimilation, empowering each other, addressing each other by the name we are most intimate with since we were kids.  It’s the least we can do to make each other feel seen and loved.