العدد 34 - FIRST NAMES TELL STORIES THAT REACH BEYOND CULTURAL ORIGIN
First names tell stories that reach beyond cultural origin
 Eric Zemmour enjoys a polemic, particularly when it involves other people’s names.
In 2009, France’s notorious anti-liberal writer railed against Rachida Dati, then justice minister, for giving her daughter the name Zohra, Arabic for flower. Later, in his book Le Suicide Français, he derided Muslim immigrants in France for naming their children Mohamed or Aicha, rather than François or Martine. He assumed that this showed a refusal to integrate.

This month, the French writer was at it again, this time lashing out at French entrepreneur Hapsatou Sy. He claimed it was an insult to France that she wasn’t known by a good traditional name like Corinne.

This first name obsession is one of many in Mr Zemmour’s campaign against immigration and multiculturalism. It is also a symptom of ignorance. A given name often becomes part of one’s identity but it need not define a person nor dictate his or her level of integration. A child of immigrants could be called Martine and forever feel on the margins of French society; she could be Aisha and seamlessly assimilate.

As I read about the Zemmour controversy in recent days, I was reminded of how deeply personal it is to choose children’s names, and how insulting it is for people to be judged by their name when it is a choice outside their control.
 
 Researchers have found that there are invisible hands at play when naming children. Some of us apparently fantasise about what we would like our children to be and choose a name accordingly. Others give boys longer names than girls. We also sometimes make choices based on our political views: liberals favour exotic names and conservatives prefer the more traditional.

More often, I suspect, parents succumb to the fashion of the day. I am named after an ancient Arab tribe, but my parents made the choice of Roula because it was new and popular at the time.

Some parents want to impart a small gift of their culture to their children by giving them names drawn from their own ethnic backgrounds, others pick names with sounds that they are fond of.

And then there are those who want to stand out and make sure their children do too. I’m thinking here of the celebrity trend of exotic names that thrill the tabloids, like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s decision to name their children North, Saint and Chicago West.

That’s not to say that some choices are not glaringly bad ones: when I covered Iraq, I felt sorry for all those kids who were named Saddam, which presumably denoted unflinching loyalty to the dictator. There must have been a rush for name changes when the Iraqi ruler was overthrown in 2003, and being known as Saddam was an embarrassment.
 
 I’ve always fancied the name of one of Saddam’s sons, Qusay, probably because it rings of confidence, but I could not burden my son with a name that was bound to condemn him to association with a psychopath.

I can sympathise with those who feel their name has become noxious. Jihad is a common name for an Arab newborn and to most parents it means striving to do better. With the rise of Islamist extremism, however, Jihad is understood in the west primarily for its other meaning — holy war. One Jihad I know has changed his name to Jerry.

Mr Zemmour may be unaware, but immigrant families do think of integration when choosing their children’s names. In the back of their minds lurks a fear that their offspring will be confronted with people like him. And so they balance cultural respect with protection from bullying and ridicule.

Arab tradition, however, can be confining. Grandfathers expect their names to be passed on to their eldest sons’ firstborn boys. My own solution to this dilemma was to give my son two first names, one that his grandfather can use and be pleased with, the other for the benefit of the rest of the family and the world. So my son has a Polish name that I chose because I liked it, and an Arab name that is his grandfather’s.

I wonder what Mr Zemmour would make of this. Or maybe I don’t. Other people’s names are none of his business.