For as long as I can remember my name has been both a source of pride as well as frustration. While virtually every part of my formative upbringing was American or Americanized in some fashion—born and raised in California; summers with Midwestern grandparents in Colorado; overseas life as a U.S. embassy “brat” attending American schools; college in Virginia—all my personal history is chucked out the window whenever I meet someone for the first time and they hear my name. Brief salutations are inevitably followed by the quizzical, “so, where exactly are you from?“
Sure, I like that my name is distinct, but the question can also be exhausting. I sometimes suspect that among a handful of acquaintances or even people I consider good friends, my name seems to signify while I may be American in accent and character, I’m invariably associated with a land I know little about: Pakistan.
(By the way, here’s the short version: my father is originally from Pakistan, but was, for the most part, raised in the United States. He attended Columbia University and spent much of his working life in New York City. He doesn’t have a trace of subcontinental accent. My mother is from Missouri. She does have an accent when she’s catching up with friends on the phone from St. Joseph. They met in Karachi by chance in the early 1970s. A couple years later, I was born. Occasionally, I like to cook Pakistani food and my aunt and cousins on that side of the family are absolute riots—and they are all Westernized themselves.)
Being an expat only magnifies that association, especially in an Muslim country where my Arabic name is easily recognized.
Since arriving in Saudi Arabia earlier this week, I’ve met many people (all men, of course) who recognize the meaning of my name in Arabic (which apparently is “beautiful”) and naturally ask where I’m from. Syrians, Egyptians, Sudanese, Jordanians are all curious as to why I have a perfect American accent, yet something is amiss. ”But you don’t look American and your name is Arabic. Why is this?” they will say.
When I offer up my 20 second explanation, their eyes light up as if they’ve met a long-lost brother. A deluge of other questions follow: “Where is your wife?” “Where is your family?” and sometimes the statement-question: “You are Muslim.”
The last is both the most difficult to answer. When I smile and say I’m “non-Muslim,” a confused face stares back at me. “But, your father is Muslim, yes?” The air now taken out of their questioning, only a few half-hearted attempts are made to win more information before the conversation shuts down, albeit politely, from there.
No place have I experienced such a visceral sense of feeling like a stranger in two lands in name, culture, and appearance than last week upon my arrival Riyadh. I arrived at the customs area, which was divided into two lines: re-entry visas and new arrivals. Making my way to the second line, I soon found myself quickly surrounded by hundreds of faces, all awaiting entry into the Kingdom to undertake the umrah—similar to the hajj except it can be performed any time of year—to Mecca. A sea of humanity both men and women, wearing traditional clothing, donning caps or coverings that offered clues to their regional origins, and holding retail bags, most likely filled with the only personal belongings they had. Imagine packing up your possessions for international travel in a white plastic Target bag. Printed on the sides of each parcel were some familiar names: Peshawar, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Karachi.
An elderly gentleman nudged me and asked in Urdu why his phone wasn’t receiving service. I shrugged and muttered “sorry” in English under my breath and a look appeared on his face that knowingly realized I wasn’t going to be of any help. My gaze turned to the customs officials wearing crispy pressedthobes and red keffiyeh, the Arabic signage in the customs hall, the Pakistanis who leaned forward around me to figure out what was holding up the line, and finally to a familiar sight. On a 42-inch big screen TV on one of the walls, a Tom & Jerry cartoon. A Cat Concerto, where Tom is a piano virtuoso at a concert hall whose playing disturbs a sleeping Jerry.
I stared at the television for a good 15 minutes as the Pakistani travelers pressed around me and thought to myself, “that cartoon is probably the one thing I can relate to in this entire airport at the moment.”
A customs official then signaled that I was next. Grabbing my belongings, I headed to him and handed over my passport. He flipped to my information page and to my visa. He quickly asked “name?” to which I replied in full. Then, I was fingerprinted and photographed. He handed my passport back, looked at me above the rim of his glasses and said, in what I swore was California-accented English, “Welcome to Saudi Arabia. I hope you enjoy your teaching assignment.”
photo: natives of a Sindhi village drench a European tourist with cold water from a well to beat the summer heat (1973).