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 (I know a few binational Arab Americans who have), 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.
(I capitalize Umm and Abu here because it is an English language convention to capitalize names, whereas Arabic has no capital letters as such.)
Some women, like the new young wife of the sheikh at the mosque across the street, may 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 kunya, already having sons from his first marriage.
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.
Formally, in Jordan and Saudi and many other Arab countries, your name for government purposes follows a very specific format: your name, your father’s name, your grandfather’s name, and your surname. For example, Muhammad Radhwan Ahmed al-Harahsheh is the son of Radhwan and the grandson of Ahmed. His father’s name is Radhwan Ahmed Muhammad al-Harahsheh, the son of Ahmed and the grandson of Muhammad. In Saudi, this is often further clarified by the use of “bin” for son or “bint” for daughter, for example, the brother and sister Muhammad bin Radhwan bin Ahmed al-Harahsheh and Ayat bint Radhwan bin Ahmed al-Harahsheh, or the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. (This is different, however, from a name like Bin Laden that, while technically meaning “son of Laden,” is actually the family surname, like the Jordanian tribe Bani Hassan is “the sons of Hassan.”)
This isn’t unique to Arabic. Hebrew uses “ben” instead of “bin,” and you see this in names like Benjamin (son of the right hand–yameen). English and most Scandinavian languages used to use this convention – it’s where we get names like Anderson, the son of Ander – and still today in Iceland, your last name is your father’s first name with the suffix -son or -dóttir, as in the Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and her husband Gunnar Sigvaldason.
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 pronouns the trans community in his country preferred. At first he didn’t understand the question. Then he said, “I know this is something you’re talking about in America. Honestly, we have so many other things to worry about here, this isn’t even a topic of conversation.”