Hope you well.”
This is a greeting I received via email recently, during the month of Ramadan.
From an outsider’s perspective, there is nothing wrong with that greeting. It’s polite and considerate, if the recipient is Muslim.
This always comes as a shock to most people who meet me for the first time, but I am not Muslim. My given name is obviously very Arabic. And I can forgive someone mistaking me for a Muslim just by looking at my name.
It also doesn’t help that I “look” Indian. Between me and my brother, I think I inherited the lion’s share of my grandfather’s Indian genes. So as a result, I’ve been going through life correcting people for thinking that I’m an Indian Muslim.
It’s not a big deal. It’s just annoying. I’ve been retelling my family tree to complete strangers since I was eight years old. You can imagine disclosing one’s genealogy can be quite invasive and cumbersome after the 35th time.
I was talking to my father about it one day, he’s had similar experiences and has managed to take it in his stride (I don’t have that stride). In fact, it’s an inside joke between us. I have considered making it the topic of my monologue for when I try stand-up comedy.
Sometimes I think I would have to answer fewer questions if my name wasn’t Arabic. I kind of blame my dad for that – he was the one who decided that I shouldn’t be given a Western name. Conversely, sometimes when I consider how Westernised the world is becoming and how much people are fighting to preserve their cultures – then I’m grateful that my dad sort of “stuck it to the man” and gave me and my brother Arabic names.
My name is sort of the thing that confirms the assumption that I am Indian. For example: Someone sees me for the first time, assumes that I am Indian by the pigmentation of my skin and the texture of my hair (very stereotypical by the way). I mention my “Indian-sounding” name, and there’s the confirmation – what they see matches what they assume.
In fact I don’t do anything that’s haram (forbidden) by Muslim standards
One of my colleagues also highlighted that I have very Muslim-habits, that don’t bode well to diffuse the situation either. For example, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t smoke, I don’t eat pork (that’s just a preference) and I don’t date (I haven’t had the opportunity)… In fact I don’t do anything that’s haram (forbidden) by Muslim standards. It’s ironic because when you’re trying to be like Jesus, you don’t expect your actions to come across as those of Prophet Muhammad.
Essentially, I’m being stereotyped based on what people see on the surface. I can live with that, if I never have to see these people again. But it’s the “subsequent-stereotyping” I’m worried about. That’s the kind of stuff that gets me into awkward, if not embarrassing situations. Here’s a rundown:
- When my Muslim classmate asked me to ask our lecturer to reschedule a test because it was the night of Eid.
- When my colleagues assumed that I was Muslim because of my name… and then found out that I wasn’t Muslim, six months later.
- Apart from the countless emails I received wishing me well for Ramadan, there have also been messages to wish me well as I celebrate Eid.
- When the guy at the cafeteria didn’t want to make me a sandwich because he didn’t have halaal ingredients.
- When the guy at the cafeteria asked the lady in the kitchen to look at me to confirm that I wasn’t Indian.
- That guy from the hardware store who called me, but greeted me with “Salaam Alaikum,” and I just said… “Hello” back.
- My driving instructor who kept showing me lovely Mosques as we drove past them.
- My driving instructor who asked me how I handle fasting.
- My driving instructor who couldn’t understand why all my names were Muslim, even the middle one.
- That person who wanted to reschedule a meeting for when my prayers were done.
- That guy who asked me how the fast was going.
- My friend’s sister who wanted to find a halaal restaurant for me. (Okay that wasn’t embarrassing. That was sweet.)
I don’t hate my name, but it does create a lot of inconvenient situations for me. Once I was hanging out with Christians, and cringed at having to explain what my name means. Sometimes I wish I had a Christian name. One guy who was surprised (they’re always surprised) to learn the truth about me asked what I would name my children. I responded with an aggressive and probably not like Jesus: “Very Christian names!”
I have learnt a lesson from this – and that’s not to judge people, especially when it comes to matters of identity/ ethnicity/ religion. And I have also seen the kindness of people, stereotyping aside, people are really considerate and respecting of others and their beliefs. It’s nice to see that there is still good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for (Yep, I totally stole that from Samwise Gamgee #TeamLOTR).
But I guess the silver lining in all of this is that your name doesn’t define who you are. You are not your name, but you are the sum of your choices. Who we become is up to us. There is always redemption.