My name is Elia.
My father chose this name for me on July 21, both my birthday and St. Elijah’s day, the Lebanese equivalent to Fourth of July. The day I landed in America, it was on the Fourth of July. Fireworks felt like home. My earliest memory takes me back to my first day of school. I arrived to the pre-K classroom late, with a sippy cup — not yet caffeinated — to find that the teacher had already given all the kids sticky name tags, except me. My name is unseen. I remember thinking: “I will now be known as the one without a sticky name tag!”
When I immigrated here, I didn’t like introducing myself. People often responded to my introductions mis-naming me: “You have a beautiful name, India!” Over the past three years in Miami, I stockpiled a sizable collection of coffee cups with all the names that baristas have given me. Every day, a dis-identification. Some days I am Aaliyah, the princess of R&B. Others, I am Alien (although I admit, I don’t know if I find this one offensive or relatable). It’s been a name game. If they don’t know my name, I am invincible. I am a modern-day Rumpelstiltskin. Up until now, I’ve been OK as the one without a sticky name tag.
Where I grew up, women all have names that relate them back to men: Bint (daughter of), Mart (wife of), Oum (mother of). For example: OumFred, MartFred, and BintFred. A woman’s name is literally “of her man.”
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Here, women take their husband’s last name. Beneath these seemingly small naming conventions, lies a big culture-erasing tendency of those who cannot be bothered to learn our real names. If they don’t know my name, I am invisible. Invisible like trying to find an Elia in an aisle full of red-and-white Coca-Cola cans mass-produced for Robert.
#NotMyNeim is a personal revolution, crafting an inclusive language to expand our counter culture’s safe space. A new world is coming where my phone doesn’t autocorrect my name (what the duck!); where I don’t mispronounce my own name so it fits better in someone else’s mouth; where trans+ people don’t dead name themselves because it’s safer; where immigrants have the same name when they step on this land as when they step off the boat.
This new world has a name. It’s my neim.
Elia Khalaf will lead a “name-reclaiming” workshop, where people can craft stories with their names; spell stories with their names and share one-word poems, known as “neims,” from 11-1 April 8, at White Rose Coffee, 6246 SW Eighth St. in Miami. For more information, visit Omiami.org