Op-Ed

My name isn’t Aaliyah — and it’s definitely not Alien. Help me reclaim my name.

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.”

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

  Comments