A Pearl By Any Other Name
At school, my name is Donna. On social media, my name is Dana Albraik. On the attendance roster, my name is unpronounceable. To me, it’s just Dana.
I still remember my first day of kindergarten, when my teacher asked for my name. Back then, at a mere six years old, it wasn’t the nerve-wracking question it came to be years later.
“My name is Dana,” I said.
I was surprised to see the confused expression on her face. It hadn’t been there when Lily, Stephen, or even Thaddeus had introduced themselves. My name was nowhere near as complicated as Thaddeus--it was only four letters. And yet I stood there in the doorway with her for ages, trying to get her to pronounce my name, until finally I sighed and said, “It’s Donna.”
For a while, I tried to get people to call me by my real name. My mom always insisted that I had the easiest name out of my whole family--“four letters, two syllables, bes!”--and she didn’t like when people would call me by my ‘American’ name. In Arabic, Dana means the most valuable and beautiful pearl. In English, no one could pronounce it, and so I quickly decided that it meant nothing to me. I was Donna at school, Dana at home, and that was that.
Unfortunately for me--the only Arab in a sea of white Americans--my first name wasn’t the only one I had to worry about. There was also my last name: Alsheikh-Ali. Everyone at school had surnames like Smith, Donovan, and Rimer. Not me. Even among my Arab friends, I was an anomaly, standing out among a sea of Mansours, Omars, and Salems.
When I moved to Dubai in fourth grade, I thought things might finally be easier. The UAE wasn’t just an Arab country, but it was my country. I wouldn’t stand out there. I soon found out that it was the opposite. If anything, my name stood out more.
When I moved to the UAE, my name on my passport was Dana Alawi Alsheikh-Ali Albraik. Alawi was my dad’s first name, Alsheikh-Ali was his surname, and Albraik….well, at the time, I had no idea where that came from. When I asked my dad, he explained that it was a tribe name. I blinked before informing him that I had no idea we were Bedouins. Rolling his eyes, he said that even though we weren’t Bedouins, it was the original name of my relatives when they had immigrated to the UAE from Yemen in 1970.
Almost immediately, I started changing my name on all my social media accounts to Dana Albraik. When I wrote my name on school assignments, I used the same name. While it was no John Smith, it was still much easier to pronounce than the name I had gone by before. Unsurprisingly, this did not go over well with my dad, who was upset that I wasn’t proud of my name like he was. When I tried to explain to him that it was different for him, who had grown up in an environment where everyone could pronounce each other’s names, he shook his head.
“Don’t change your name out of of convenience for others, Dana,” he told me. “Alsheikh-Ali means ‘Ali the leader.’ That’s what’s so special about Arabic, our names have meaning. Just like your name, Dana. We give our children these strong names so they will grow up to become strong people. Remember, when you erase your name, you erase your identity.”
I still carry those words with me to this day. I no longer see my name as something to cringe at, but something to be proud of. My name is more than just letters on a piece of paper. My name is my culture, my family, my identity, all in one--even if it is harder to pronounce than others.