The entanglements of cultures and languages affected our choice of baby names. Shake my family tree and Muslim-sounding fruit will drop at your feet. Her people are more diverse, if your idea of diversity is the expanse between “Tim” and “Will.” After weeks of looking for a name culturally appropriate for both sides, we began to suspect that none existed.
Gender was an impediment. Many girl names — Sophia, Nadia, Lana — exist in several cultures. But it seemed as if bicultural baby boys were forced to pick a side from the very beginning. We needed creative ideas.
We started with restraint: Alex. Everyone claims Alexander the Great. The Macedonian was pagan, which appealed to us agnostics. His march to the banks of the Indus lets some in the old country claim a hazy Greek descent. Alas, for the past 20 years, Alexander has been among the 20 most popular names for American newborns. The consensus: Too common.
Nathan seemed like a generous concession to my wife. But when I admitted it was a nod to the Philip Roth character, her enthusiasm faded. In the #MeToo era, all male writers are suspect.
Sinan was mine, driven by a fanboy obsession with the Ottoman architect. Neither of us is Turkish, so my wife rightly raised the notion of cultural appropriation. I argued that appreciation — not appropriation — was the more accurate term, given the absence of a power imbalance. Besides, we had been to Istanbul.
She said she might as well be the hippie white girl who really respects other cultures and names her kid Dharma.
I said nothing.
There the matter rested, uneasily, until I noted that any child of mine would likely inherit a genetic propensity for nerdiness. Why make his childhood worse with a name that increases the likelihood of getting teased on the playground?
So sank Sinan. Ditto Rumi — no new-age wooliness. And no culture-transcending, superhero-sounding names like Zane. Also out was anything too taxing for the sensitive American epiglottis. Sorry, Khusrau.
Other factors had to be accounted for. We fly frequently. The wrong name can easily subject your child to secondary screening. Out went Mohammed and Jihad. (Apologies to the former Cincinnati Bearcats point guard.)
We grew despondent.
Then a song came on. It was about Ali, the seventh-century martyr whose gentle wisdom inspired much Sufi thought. “You imbue everything with color,” one line went. I have spiritual pretensions, noticeably so after a glass of Malbec, so the name had appeal. My wife liked it. My parents liked it. No cultures would be appropriated.
As a bonus, the name was difficult (although not impossible, we later learned) to mispronounce. Even better, who could be more American than Ali, the Greatest? Naturally, we would teach our boy to use words instead of fists. But would it really be that awful if the name gave him the ability — spiritual, of course — to slug playground bullies, like Ali did Frazier?
For his middle name we picked Thomas, in honor of my wife’s physicist grandfather. In a tight spot, the boy would have the option to go by A. Tom. Or Tommy, although I sincerely hope he does not.
Then Ali came. Life was imbued with color but lacking in sleep. We called him Baby, even when he started to toddle, so he was late to acknowledge his own name. So far he has shown no inclination to box, float or sting. Instead, he likes to listen to Lana Del Rey and whirl, like a little American dervish.
Zia Ahmed is a stay-at-home American dad in London.