“Excuse me, is your name Rachel?”
A few years ago, I was at a movie theater in El Paso, Tex., when one of the employees there stopped me to pose this question.
I shook my head “no” and went on my way. I doubt the majority of Americans would have even remembered this exchange, but, to me, this moment was significant. “Me?” I remember thinking. “Could I be a Rachel?”
I wondered how much simpler life would be if I was named Rachel instead of Nadra. My name has always been a sore spot for me. In second grade or so, I came home from school one day and told my mother that I’d had it with my name. As soon as I was of age, I would change it.
My mother, who has the perfectly common name of Abby, didn’t challenge me on this. She seemed to sense that I could not be dissuaded from changing my name. The problem was that I never came up with an alternative moniker for myself, so I continued to be Nadra until, at some point, it just fit.
Still, I can’t help but to consider my name a nuisance of sorts. In my line of work—journalism—I have to introduce myself to people on a regular basis. This means that I have to spell my name to strangers on a regular basis. Often, they still get it wrong. I’ve gotten three emails this week in which my name was misspelled. In the two I received in the past 24 hours, one person referred to me as Nadre, totally ignoring the correct spelling of my name visible in the addressee line of the email. Another person addressed me as Karen. I’m assuming this is because Karen is somewhat similar to my last name, Kareem. And, in an email I received in the beginning of the week, I was called my favorite, Nada, which means “nothing” in Spanish.
The fact that my name is so often butchered makes me feel like nothing to an extent. It’s as if my odd name renders me invisible. When people decide to call me whatever is most convenient for them, rather than what my parents chose to call me at birth, they are, in effect, erasing me.
Then, there are the mispronunciations. I am frequently called Nay-druh (my name is pronounced “Nah-druh”) or Naa-dra, as in gonad-ra. Others are bent on making my name more complicated than it is, calling me Nadria, for example. But the ultimate rejection is when someone simply refuses to bother saying my name, rendering it unpronounceable. If my name was, say, Nagheenanajar, as in the character Samir’s last name from “Office Space,” I could understand. But the fact that it is five letters and two syllables and that pretty much anyone who can pronounce the name Sandra can pronounce my name, makes this claim a bit hard to swallow.
I also have to deal with the fact that my name is politically charged due to its Arabic origin. Nadra means “rare” in the language, and Kareem means “generous.” In a post-9/11 world, I’ve had people offer their sympathies to me for having such a name. Others respond to it with curiosity. They’re excited by the possibility that they’ve encountered a real live Muslim. And, in church, I’ve, on occasion, been eyed with suspicion. “Your name’s Kareem,” a fellow churchgoer rather snidely asked me. “Are you a Muslim?”
When I explained that, no, I wasn’t, but my father was, her reaction was mixed. She seemed relieved that I wasn’t a Muslim but dismayed that my father was. I seriously believe she was wondering why I wasn’t praying for his soul at that moment.
In short, these experiences collectively have made me wonder again and again if life would be somehow better for me with a different name. The New York Times recently printed an article—“A Boy Named Sue, and a Theory of Names”—about this very subject. The title alludes to Johnny Cash’s song “A Boy Name Sue,” which posited that someone with an odd name could grow up to be relatively well adjusted.
Today, there’s evidence that Cash may have been right, writer John Marion Tierney said. Tierney cited a book called “Bad Baby Names,” by Michael Sherrod and Matthew Rayback, in which the authors interviewed people with names such as Mary Christmas, River Jordan, Rasp Berry and Happy Day. Oddly enough, none of them were traumatized by the names. Even more surprising was that they weren’t teased much for having such unusual monikers.
For the article, Tierney interviewed a developmental psychologist at George Mason University named Dr. Martin Ford. “Names only have a significant influence when that is the only thing you know about the person,” Dr. Ford told Tierney. “Add a picture, and the impact of the name recedes. Add information about personality, motivation and ability, and the impact of the name shrinks to minimal significance.”
This leads me to the question: Have I been making too much of my name? Maybe life, or my personality, wouldn’t be much different if I were named Rachel or something just as common.
So why do celebrities such as gorgeous actress/DJ Shannyn Sossamon (pictured) give their children names like Audio Science? According to Sherrod, today it’s all about individuality. And, yes, people have responded to my name with genuine interest because it is so uncommon. My name has earned me more compliments than I can remember. Because it is very common in the Muslim country of Pakistan, each Pakistani I meet automatically seems to feel a kinship with me. A Pakistani coworker of my mother even brought me back traditional clothes from the country, and, at the time, she hadn’t even met me! Repeatedly, I find that those familiar with my name are extremely excited to meet me, to tell me about its origins and its Arabic pronunciation, as well as about its male counterpart, Nadir, or longer female version, Nadira. (Think Indira Gandhi).
These are some of the perks of having a rare name, I guess. I’m grateful that the New York Times article has given me more of a reason to dwell on the positives of my name rather than to continue viewing it as a source of frustration. As for my own children—if I have them, that is—I’m not likely to name them something as far out as Audio Science, but I don’t want them to have a name as common as, say, Melissa or as trendy, as, say, Madison. My thinking is that they’d do best with something in-between.