I spend a lot of time explaining my name to people. Part of that comes from having a name as unusual as Jemaleddin Sasha David Cole, and part of it is that I’m a pretty approachable person. I have a hard time going grocery shopping alone without being asked to get something heavy or on a high shelf into an old woman’s shopping cart. People are always asking me for directions, even when I’m walking around looking puzzled by a tourist map. But most of it is that I have a better story than most people.
When she was a teenager, my mother read a book called “The Mountains of Allah” by Paul Chavchavadze. It’s a novel of historical fiction about the different ethnic and religious groups in the Caucasus and the adventures of a young French woman who moves there after the death of her parents. My mother loved the story and especially loved the character meant to represent famed (well, not famed here and now, but still pretty famed) Muslim leader Jemaleddin al-Afgani. She decided to name her eventual son after him, as well as the Russian (Sasha—short for Alexander) and Jewish (David) characters. You see, these men were all men of faith, and my mother has always been a woman of faith.
Which all sounds pretty sweet until you remember that we’re talking about saddling a little white kid with Jemaleddin Sasha David.
In the years since, I’ve advocated pretty strenuously that hippies not be allowed to name children, or at least not right away. If a midwife notices a strong smell of patchouli during the delivery, she could hold off on passing out the name forms until everyone involved has had some time to sober up.
Mind you, it hasn’t always been a ball of laughs. At some point my parents realized that opportunities for bullying were minimal for a white Jemal in Seattle and moved to Chicago. (They claim to have had other reasons, but I don’t think they hold much water.) After the city kids in Chicago and New York had gotten their licks in, my parents moved us to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where the local hillbillies not only gave me shit for my name, but beat me up for having red hair because, in their cosmopolitan experience, only girls had red hair.
Arguing that either A) if I were a girl they shouldn’t hit me, or B) if I wasn’t a girl they had no reason to hit me, got me labelled a nerd. Hillbillies do not appreciate rhetoric or the use of the subjunctive mood. That’s information that really informed my understanding of the broader public discourse. Unlike many people, I was not surprised by those Tea Party signs.
Having this name in the U.P. taught me other things as well. In middle school I learned how soon you should fall down when a high school kid is punching you (very soon), and what to do once you hit the ground. You see, curling up in the fetal position is good, but making sure your stomach is facing towards him with your hands on your ears and elbows in front of your face as close to your knees as possible is the key. Being kicked in the kidneys is no fun, and you can block most of the kicks to the stomach if you go down before you start getting all cotton-brained from the punches.
The benefits of a public education, everybody!
It was then that I tried to convince my family to call me David, but an afternoon of my dad saying, “can you pass the sugar, Daaaaaaaaaave?” ended that notion.
In the years since I got too tall for kids to feel I was an easy target, being a Jemal has actually been beneficial. In High School, somebody in the office saw my name and GPA and signed me up for every local African-American scholarship opportunity. Trying to collect those never worked out, but it was nice hearing my name on the morning announcements. And the look on my face after my principal—who I met with on a weekly basis for several years—couldn’t pronounce my name during graduation got me on the poster for the company that sells pictures of you collecting your diploma.
Once the Internet became a way to meet people without having any idea what they look like, I learned that I have to tell people I’m white before arranging to meet them in person. It’s a little awkward, but that way I don’t have to walk up to every person in a public place and say, “If you’re waiting for a black guy named Jemal, I’m him!” And getting good at having awkward conversations is a reward in itself. It sure has made parenting a teenager easier.
Being a white Jemal has made air travel in the post-9/11 era a little tricky. The folks at passport control always look at me like I’m the next John Walker Lindh, so I downplay the named-after-a-Muslim-leader aspects of my story and play up the “hippies, amirite?” parts. Those folks really do not like hippies.
Probably the most fun thing about this name is the experience my wife has gotten playing, “what kind of reaction will I get when I say my husband’s name is Jemal?” When we were dating, a solid 60% of people she talked to had either an uncomfortable or downright racist reaction to hearing she was with “Jemal.” Once she recognized the signs, she’d hit them with, “Yeah, it’s an Arab name” for that xenophobic twist. (Tell me more about this post-racial America.)
With all that said, I’ve come to love my name. As much of a pain as it’s been, the story has given me a great icebreaker when meeting new people. Better yet, it’s very easy to get my first name as my username on any given website. If I’m on a service, you’ll find me as jemaleddin.
Good luck getting your name every time, Daaaaaaaaaave.
UPDATE August 7, 2013: For a fuller discussion of my name’s meaning linguistic origins, check out this comment I posted on Quora.