On Jordanian Names

In Jordanian villages, girls and boys are known by their first names or diminutives of their first names, but men and women, i.e. married people, mostly only use their first names in the workplace. Among friends, family and neighbors, they are known by their relationships, by their kunya.

The kunya consists of two parts: umm or abu, and the name of the eldest child. In theory, a parent can choose be known by the name of his or her eldest daughter, but in practice it is almost always the eldest son. The prefix umm means mother, and the prefix abu means father. For example, my school headmistress and neighbor in the Peace Corps was known in school as Sid Muna, sid being a term of respect like “Mrs.” or “madam.” At home, however, she was Umm Hashem, the mother of Hashem. She had a daughter who was older, but was known by her eldest son. Umm Hashem’s husband was Abu Hashem.

Some women, like the new young wife of the sheikh at the mosque across the street, become known by their kunya even before they become pregnant with their first child. She was known as Umm Muhammad, because the sheikh planned to name her first son Muhammad. The sheikh, on the other hand, was known by a different name, already having sons from his first marriage.

(I capitalize Umm and Abu here because it is an English language convention to capitalize names, whereas Arabic has no capital letters as such.)

The neighbors used to give me funny looks when I referred to dar ummii—my mother’s house. “Isn’t your father alive?” they would ask. (He is.) Families in Jordan are known by the name of the head of household, and generally the only women who are heads of household are widows.

The convention is to use the word dar—house, followed by the husband’s name. The headmistress’s home and family were referred to as dar Mohammad, her sister’s home and family were dar Radhwan, and so on. Usually given names were used, though my Jordanian grandfather’s home was known as dar Abu Radhi; I have no idea what his given name actually was.

At school, it was common to have several students with the same first name. My first grade class, for example, had two girls named Selsabeel. A boys’ classroom might have five or six students named Muhammad. In a village as small as mine, they also all had the same tribe and family names: Harahsheh of the Bani Hassan. They were distinguished, then, by their fathers’ names: Selsabeel Muhammad and Selsabeel Nasser; Muhammad Radhwan and Muhammad Nusri.

Hajja and Hajji:
It is incumbent upon every Muslim man and woman, as they are able, to journey once to Mecca — the home city of the Prophet Mohammad and site of the holiest of holies, the Ka’aba — and Medina — the world’s first city governed by Muslim tradition. This pilgrimage is called the Hajj, and a person who has made Hajj is known forever after as a pilgrim — Hajja for a woman, and Hajji for a man. Sometimes a pious older Muslim who doesn’t have the financial means to make the pilgrimage, once he or she reaches a certain age, still becomes known as Hajji Nasri or Hajja Iman, etc.

A Note On Gendering:
As a language, Arabic assigns gender to everything: nouns, adjectives, verbs, even adverbs, and certainly pronouns. Even “you” has six forms: singular masculine, singular feminine, dual masculine (“you two guys”), dual feminine, plural masculine, plural feminine. Once, while translating for a social justice cause, I was asked to create text with gender neutral language. While I wholeheartedly support this concept in English, it doesn’t exist in Arabic. 

I contacted an Arab friend of mine who has, at great risk for his personal safety, been an outspoken advocate for trans Arabs, especially refugees. I asked what the trans community in his country preferred. At first he didn’t understand the question. Then he said, “Honestly, we have so many other things to worry about here, this isn’t even a topic of conversation here.”