A most unfortunate name

“Hi Lameez

Ramadan Mubarak!

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:

  1. When my Muslim classmate asked me to ask our lecturer to reschedule a test because it was the night of Eid.
  2. When my colleagues assumed that I was Muslim because of my name… and then found out that I wasn’t Muslim, six months later.
  3. 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.
  4. When the guy at the cafeteria didn’t want to make me a sandwich because he didn’t have halaal ingredients.
  5. When the guy at the cafeteria asked the lady in the kitchen to look at me to confirm that I wasn’t Indian.
  6. That guy from the hardware store who called me, but greeted me with “Salaam Alaikum,” and I just said… “Hello” back.
  7. My driving instructor who kept showing me lovely Mosques as we drove past them.
  8. My driving instructor who asked me how I handle fasting.
  9. My driving instructor who couldn’t understand why all my names were Muslim, even the middle one.
  10. That person who wanted to reschedule a meeting for when my prayers were done.
  11. That guy who asked me how the fast was going.
  12. 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.

Identity Crisis

“It doesn’t matter who you think you are.  The anti-Semites will tell you that you are Jewish.”   Those were the words of Anton Harber as he ended a discussion about identity and how people define themselves.

A hard statement to accept but too true to deny.  I define myself by my religion, my nationality and my gender.   Others define themselves by their occupations, their financial status and their education.  Some people define themselves by their hobbies, their achievements or the things of which they are proud.  Most people define themselves by their cultures and their families.  As uncomfortable as it might be to acknowledge, some people still define themselves by their race.  No matter how you define yourself, people will always see you differently and define you in the way they see fit.

This phenomenon of prejudiced labelling is commonly known as stereotyping.  No one is immune to it.  You cannot “take heed” or “lock up your daughters and your wives”.  You will be victimised, criticised and possibly chastised for believing that you are exceptional.   “Stereotyping” is coming.  It is no respecter of persons.  It is shameless, “she will find you out” for the fraud you are.  The person you have built up in your mind does not exist in reality.   You have to share your world with others.  Your perceptions of yourself are laughable.  They have no value in a world occupied by other people.

It is funny how you do not think there is anything wrong with you until someone else points it out.

Cynical?  Perhaps.  I have had my fair share of stereotypical judgments to know that giving people too much credit is foolish.  I do not blame them, I do the same.  It is an automatic reaction.  Every time you meet someone new, you sum them up before they utter a “hello”.  Gay, white male.  Arabic terrorist.  Black born-free.  Drunk, coloured gangster. Socially-awkward nerd.  Zimbabwean refugee.  Genius Asian.  Drug-dependent art freak.  Academically-inept athlete.  Poor musician.  Ditzy, pretty, blonde lady.

In my experience, I have been labelled a number of things.  Being called “Coolie” was probably the most unsettling.  My identity poses quite a conundrum to people.  By my name you would think that I am Muslim.   In fact I found myself in very awkward, “Sorry, I’m not Muslim” situations.  I look Indian too, so I also have had to deal with “Sorry, I’m not Indian” situations.  In my mind I was Christian.  At home my culture was Christian.  It is unfortunate that people could never understand that.

I could not do anything about people’s initial perceptions of me.  It had to take time for them to truly know me to define me accurately.  I wish I could go back and tell the seven year old Lameez that people will have different ideas about the person she is.  It would have prepared me better for the days people asked questions like, “What are you?”

It is funny how you do not think there is anything wrong with you until someone else points it out.  It is funny how a case of mistaken identity can escalate into an identity crisis you did not have before.  It is funny how even though you believe that you are someone; people will tell you that you are someone else.