The (dis) comfort of being called

I am Ebti

 

I was born during the holy month of Ramadan right before sunrise.

For Muslims the time right before sunrise is considered a time prayers are answered.

I was born around that time.

My name is Ebtihal. Which roughly translates to prayer or pleading to god.

 

I grew up in Cairo. This name was and still is not very common and more on the heavy side, religious and serious. I went to a German school and in the 14 years I spent there, I met one other girl whose name was Ebtihal (it was a catholic all-girls school).

Everyone else was Dina or Sarah or Mariam etc. just “regular” names.

 

(What is a regular name anyway? The whole concept of “easy names” seems fishy and colonial to me.)

 

In the Arab world we don’t have a standard transliteration when names get written using the Latin alphabet. Names on Egyptian birth certificates are written in both Arabic and transliterated in Latin letters. My parents wrote my name using the letter “E”, when I got admitted to school I decided to write my name with the letter “I” for some reason I thought Ibtihal is cooler than Ebtihal.

 

In 6th grade during our first class with our new Class and German teacher, we introduce ourselves. I say my name is Ibtihal and he says: no, from now on you are Ibti and because I was desperate to be relieved of that serious and heavy name I accept and this is when Ibti is born.

 

I would like to take a little break from this story to talk about the concept of nicknames.

In Egypt -like in many other countries- you never get called by your name at home, there’s always some sort of nickname, a term of endearment and we all know when our names get called out that we must be in trouble. Your family, neighbors and friends would call you by whatever nickname people agreed on, while everyone knew your real name. Being called by some made up or agreed on nickname or term of endearment makes me feel warm inside.

 

Back to the story. I graduate high school and all my school documents have my name spelled as Ibtihal on them. I continue to study German literature at Cairo University, where no one cares about the transliteration of my name.

 

Until…

 

I go to Germany to do my MA in translation, interpretation and intercultural communication. The nice lady at student’s affairs office tells me she will need to write my name the same way it is in my passport, or else if my name on my degree for example doesn’t match my name in the passport, then it’s basically not valid. (This story does not include the conversation about last names, that is a whole other story).

 

In October 2008 my name becomes Ebtihal again, I get myself an official Gmail account with my official name but at this point my Facebook has been “Ibti” since 2006. One of the most asked questions is why is it Ebtihal and Ibti.

So now my name is Ebtihal but I still go by Ibti.

 

Fast forward to 2012. My husband and myself move to the States. On our second day of arrival it was my birthday so our friend takes us out and we ride the duck in Seattle (yes that duck and yes, it’s terrible). The driver asks if anyone is celebrating a special occasion and of course our friend says: my friend is celebrating her birthday. The driver asks me: what is your name and I say: Ibti. What I heard next is a duck vehicle full of people singing: happy birthday dear Ibziiiiiiiiii. After that I observe how every time I tell someone my name was Ibti they somehow hear it Ibzi.

 

A few months later we get invited to a new year’s party at our new friend’s place. We meet with their friends. I was of course trying to make connections with people as, at this point I realize, how hard it is to make friends in your late 20s in Seattle. This one friend of my friends is talking about doing this and that and I say I would love to join, she asks for my phone number and my name and I say: Ibti and she says: no, I will call you EB.

 

After that, you guessed it right, I went by EB for the 3 and a half years I spent in the Seattle area. It did hit me back then that my name kept shrinking and I let it and now it’s only 2 letters. The funniest thing is that because a lot of people here go by abbreviated names (is this what this is called?) people started asking me what EB stood for: It stands for nothing, it’s simply the first two letters of my name.

 

In 2015 when we make the move to CA and I decide to reclaim my name or rather half of it and go by Ebti (people still said Ibzi but were able to say Ebti -except for when they thought it’s Empty- and I didn’t want to have a question why it’s Ebtihal but Ibti.

 

This story is making me tired, but there is one more twist/turn.

 

Going by Ebti in SF mostly goes smooth, until I start grad school at California College of the Arts, where I write my official name as Ebtihal but introduce myself as Ebti. At some point my name is written as Ebti on the walls of shows or in official publications. Or I get introduced to an official audience as Ebti. I must say at this point I simply don’t have the energy to correct or engage and people’s reaction when they hear Ebtihal is like they heard the most difficult word in the world.

 

I’ve been working on this piece for a long time in an attempt to reclaim my name but in the meantime after losing my dad and for so many other reasons I want to just go by and be Ebti in my work. I never really knew who Ibtihal or Ebtihal was, they both existed in the cracks of ibti, tutu, obba, tito (all nicknames I ever had in my life) and lastly Ebti.

 

So, yes, now I am Ebti. Just Ebti, no last name.

The diaries of Consuelo/a

My name is Consuelo. My dad always said that for a two-syllable last name (like ours), a three-syllable first name was necessary if you wanted them to sound good together. I don’t usually agree with my dad, but I’m actually with him on this one. My mom accepted the proposal with the condition of making her name (Cecilia) my middle name. I guess the agreement was settled without a lot of debate or hesitation since my parents are not particularly known for putting a lot of thought into their childrens’ names—my oldest brother carries my dad’s name, and my other brother was named after the catholic celebration held the day he was born. So actually “Consuelo” is the only name they kinda chose out of nowhere, and I happen to like it a lot.

“Consuelo” is an actual word in Spanish, and it means “solace” or “comfort.” It is rather an old name, not very popular in Chile (or anywhere, apparently) and, because of its literal meaning, it is quite prone to being material for—very annoying—flirting moves in which the man I just introduced myself to would smile while pointing out my supposed divine call to ease his poor-single-soul pain. Shockingly, no relationships have ever started with that strategy.

But despite the few disadvantages of having a name that is also an actual word in the dictionary, I had always felt comfortable saying “hola, soy Consuelo” in Chile. The thing is, I have traveled to many different countries in the past and Consuelo has never been such a pain in the ass as it is in the US. Apparently, it is when you migrate to a different country where you expect to build a life of your own when you realize that the familiarity of your name was a gift that you just took for granted for too long. In Chile, it’s easy; I actually go by Consu, and it has always worked that way. Even when I introduce myself as Consuelo, there would always be someone in the room that already knows me and calls me Consu, so the replacement is immediate. People get it, Consuelo… Consu, pretty straightforward. 

(Well, my family does call me “Nuni,” but that’s a different story that no one really knows very well… the most accepted theory so far is that I made up that name for myself when I was a toddler? Anyways back to Consuelo…) 

So, as opposed to what happens naturally in my home country, in the US people tend to need more information whenever I say my name. I am usually asked to repeat it, and when I do, they then say “Consuela” back to me instead of “Consuelo.” And they usually do that with such confidence, with a “oh yeah, I get it now” tone. So then I have to say—with a warm, friendly smile that suggests something like you’re wrong, but that’s totally fine, I don’t expect you to be right, this is actually kind of my fault, what a silly name anyways: “Consuel-O, with an O at the end.” What I get from that correction is usually a slightly confused and sometimes even skeptical “oh, Consuel-O.” Like they don’t believe me completely. Someone even asked me once if I “was sure” that my name ended with an “o.” Even when they see it written somewhere, they misspell it and mispronounce it. “Consuela” seems to be stronger than truth. 

Until very recently, I had two assumptions around this: 1) that people expected my name to end with an “a” because I am a woman (and the tiny little bit they know about the Spanish language is that “a” is femenine and “o” is masculine), and 2) that the name Consuela didn’t exist (basically because I started to hate the word so badly I decided to take away its right to existence altogether—Consuela could only exist as a mistake). Turns out, “Consuela” does exist (it comes from the Spanish region of Andorra), which means that the questionable “Family Guy” character “Consuela de la Morrela” might not be named after a mistake after all. I learned about this character just a few months ago (three years too late, I know) and—right after feeling surprised and quite offended—I understood that the confusion with my name had probably more layers than just the gender issue. I immediately remembered one time someone told me after (mis)hearing my name: “oh! Like the cleaning maid!” I was so confused at that moment that I didn’t even ask what cleaning maid was that person talking about. Yeah, I get it now. Thank you, “Family Guy.”  

Whether we like it or not, whether we choose it or not, one’s name is a reality-maker word. Names are as random as they are profoundly significant; we contain ourselves within them while we constantly overflow and expand their limits. We live around their edges. We craft ourselves in their company. Sure, we are not our names, nor are we defined by them, but being called the way you want to be called can build the home you didn’t know you were craving. A name reflects existence, dignity, worthiness. A name is also an ethical relation, it determines who names and how, in which context, and under which dynamics. It’s a short statement of what’s underneath the surface. It’s the possibility of a connection. It’s the coziness of a word—your word—being taken care of. Sometimes I feel like that responsibility is a gift. Let us take care of each other's words, let us build that cozy home together.

Text by: Consuleo Tupper Hernandez