Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 April 2004
Issue No. 684
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

What's in a name?

"What are names but air?" mused Coleridge. Well, in Egypt, they shed light on the country's history and reflect socio-political developments, discovers Gamal Nkrumah

Maternity hospital lists of the most popular names show that the Prophet Mohamed (The Praiseworthy One) and the Qur'an remain the greatest sources of boys' names -- Mohamed and Youssef top the list. Ahmed, Mahmoud and Mustafa -- three variations of the Prophet's name -- are also immensely popular though Yassin, another appelation reserved for the Prophet Mohamed, has over the past few years started to catch up, along with Taha, yet another of the Prophet's names. The names of the Prophet's companions, such as Khaled (eternal), Hamza (the Prophet's uncle) and Bilal (the first muezzin ) are also enjoying a new found vogue.

Youssef (Joseph) is an especially favoured name in Egypt. He was, after all, the Hebrew prophet who came to Egypt as a youngster having been sold into slavery by his brothers. But he rose in the ranks and died as a senior official, favoured by the Pharaoh. Obviously a name suited to the ambitious and upwardly mobile.

Youssef is popular among both Coptic Christians and Muslims. The prophet, renowned for good looks, was also a model of perseverance, integrity and dignity in the face of adversity and betrayal. Youssef grew even more popular as a boy's name following the release of Youssef Chahine's Al- Muhajir, inspired by the Hebrew prophet's tale.

Adam was never popular, Salah (righteousness) is out while Ayah (Qur'anic verse) is in. Ibrahim (Abraham) is also popular, though not in the same league as Youssef. The biblical Patriarch's son Ismail (Ishmael) has lost ground in recent years while Yaacoub (Jacob) has seldom been chosen by Muslim parents though a handful of Christians bear the name.

Yehia, the Qur'anic name for John the Baptist, is still popular among Muslims though the popularity of Dawoud (David) plummeted following the creation of the state of Israel. Today one would be hard pressed to find anyone among the country's Muslims and Christians naming their sons Dawoud.

An Arab tradition dating from pre-Islamic days associates many male names with the concept of beauty. Hassan (beautiful), Hussein (very beautiful), Hosni (my beautiful one), Gamil (handsome) and Gamal (beauty) are some of the most common male names identified with notions of beauty. There are, of course, female equivalents -- Hosniya, Hasnaa, Hosna, Gamila and Gamalat -- while Fatin (seductive), Sahar (she who magically attracts), and Dalal (coquettishness) are names that strongly hint at the powers of feminine attraction.

photo: Jihan Ammar
Naming one's baby has increasingly become a matter of trend photo: Jihan Ammar

Gamal was popular during the presidency of Gamal Abdel-Nasser though today it is much less in favour. Hassan and Hussein (the Prophet Mohamed's grandsons), however, remain as popular as ever.

Political changes and ideological shifts influence the naming of children, a process that can shed much light on the political and religious convictions of parents.

The rise of Islamist ideology and the demise of secularism has had a great influence on the choice of children's names. Nobody was called Islam in the 1950s though today it is a popular boys' name.

Muslim Egyptians went to the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries in the 1970s in search of jobs and returned with a raft of traditional Arabian names. These include Doha (sunrise), Fajr (dawn), Suha (star) and Rowan (river of paradise) -- girls' names that evoke nature.

Ruqayya, the daughter of the Prophet, has strangely never been a popular name, while Bekhaterha (loosely translated as "as she pleases"), Rawhiya (spiritual), Nafisa (precious, and the Prophet Mohamed's granddaughter) and Lawahez (moments) have all fallen from grace though Shaimaa (the suckling-sister of the Prophet) is suddenly in vogue.

Osama (brave lion), a traditional Muslim name, is not unheard of among Christians. It gained a degree of notoriety with the rise of Osama Bin Laden but its popularity lingers.

Among Egypt's Coptic Christian community children are increasingly being named after Christian saints. In the immediate aftermath of the July 1952 Revolution, the heyday of secular Pan-Arab nationalism, Copts and Muslims tended to shun names too closely identified with either Islam or Christianity, opting instead for names such as Nabil (noble) or Hani (satisfied), which had no obvious religious connotations. Today, however, that tide has been reversed.

Copts surveyed for this article say they now opt mainly for saints names and even when choosing Arabic names for their children those somehow connected with the Christian faith, such as Fadi (the sacrificed one, a reference to Christ) are most popular.

Peter, or Pierre, is for some reason more popular than Boutros, George has won out over Girgis and John has steadily replaced Yuhanna.

"I've always loved the name Yuhanna," explained a Coptic mother of three, "but I hesitated to call my first born Yuhanna because it's such a mouthful. I opted for John instead."

In much the same vein Marie and Mary have made some inroads where once Mariam reigned supreme though the latter remains hugely popular among Copts. Female Coptic saints such as Marina and Irene are also much in vogue today.

The revival of religious identity politics is reflected in the trend among Coptic parents to select for their children the names of saints with whom they feel some particular affinity. Popular male saints names include Mina, Beshoi and Kirollos (Cyril). Other names that have retained popularity are those of the apostles though with a new twist -- Mark is overtaking the Arabic Morkos -- while once popular saints' names such as Baskharoun and Bakhom are today considered a little too clumsy.

Malak (angel), Habiba (beloved), Hana (bliss), Farah (joy), Marwa (fragrant flower), Nada (dew) and Salma (safe, a pre-Islamic Arabic name) are all back in fashion while Noha (wisdom), Shadia (singer) and Sania (radiant) have become increasingly uncommon.

Omniya (hope) and its plural Amany, common a decade ago, have now dropped out of the top ten. Similarly Amira (princess), Hanan (tenderness or compassion), Fathia or Fateheya and Fayza (winner) now look decidedly old-fashioned.

In the past some names had clear class connotations, distinctions that have now become blurred. Tareq (he who knocks at night), is a common, mainly Muslim boys' name, though it was once the prerogative of the upper classes. Shehab (shooting star), is one of the few names that has resisted a downward social slide.

In poor rural areas Shehata (begging) and Shahhat (beggar) are still encountered as boys' names, selected to keep away the evil eye, as are Nil (Nile) and Bahr (sea), though they now sound irredeemably old-fashioned. So too Gomaa (Friday) and Khamis (Thursday), two days of the week used as first names among both the rural and urban poor but scorned by the middle classes. Boys born in the holy Muslim month of Ramadan are sometimes named so, or called Siyam (fasting); similarly those born in Shaaban and Ragab.

Some parents select names that reflect their favourite virtues -- Karim (generous), Sami (lofty), Mounir (bright), Sameh (forgive), Samir (evening companion), Habib (beloved) and Fouad (heart) are all examples of such.

Nadim (drinking companion) is uncommon among pious Muslims for obvious reasons, though it remains relatively popular among Christians and less religiously inclined Muslims.

Among the religious Abdel-Rahman (servant of The Compassionate), Ali (highness) and Omar remain popular. Ali, the Prophet Mohamed's son-in-law and close companion, enjoys popularity across all segments of society -- rich, poor, urban and rural. Omar, the second Righteously-Guided Caliph and another close companion of the Prophet, has for generations of Egyptians been a common boys' name.

Othman (baby bustard), the third Righteously-Guided Caliph, was never popular in Egypt. The vintage Egyptian film Salifni Talata Guinea (Lend Me Three Pounds) featured a Nubian outcast called Othman Abdel-Baset and ever since the name has been mired with racist overtones.

Shahd (pure honey) became popular on the back of the Ramadan 2002 soap Amira fi Abdin, which featured a character of the same name. Bawabat Al-Halawani, a soap first shown on Egyptian TV in the late 1990s, introduced the until then almost unheard of name Ashraqat (dawned) as a popular girls' name.

Television soaps such as Layali Al- Helmiya and Hawanem Garden City, screened in the 1990s but set in pre- revolutionary Cairo, are probably responsible for the reintroduction of names with royal associations. Halim (gentle), Murad (my desire) and Selim (upright) have all benefited from this new trend. Once the preserve of the ancien regime, they are enjoying a new popularity. Abdallah (slave of god and the Prophet's father) is used by both Christians and Muslims. The Prophet's daughter Fatma (she who weans her baby) had particular resonance in Arabic at a time of high infant mortality rates, while another class of girls names from the peninsula includes Maha (wide-eyed wild cow) and Reem (white ibex) are as popular today as they were in the wilderness of pre-Islamic Arabia.

In Egypt boy names such as Ra'ad (thunder) or Fahd (panther), with their natural associations, tend to be frowned upon though they are popular in other Arab, particularly Gulf, countries. Badr (full moon), and its feminine variant Badriya, enjoyed widespread currency in the first half of the last century but now sound antiquated. Saqr (hawk), perhaps because of its associations with the god Horus, remains an occasional oddity.

There are many puzzling anomalies: Karim is a popular boys name while Karima -- its female equivalent -- is not. Farida (unique) has made a comeback among girls while its male equivalent, Farid, has not. Habib is a boys' name associated with Coptic Christians while its female equivalent is today most popular with Muslims.

Such occasional anomalies aside, though, it is clear from the examples above that there is more to the naming game than stringing together a mellifluous sounding set of syllables. Parents should choose carefully: a name gives rather more away than they might assume. It says far more about the parents than it can ever say about the child.

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