'Your Friends Have Weird Names'

Over pad thai and sushi one night last week, I caught up with a couple of friends for the first time in ages. As we do, we swapped stories about work, and house renovations, and whatever else was new. If we told our stories well enough, we could get the most elegant of the crew to snort with laughter. Everyone has to have a goal.

In any case, while my friends devoured a salmon, cream cheese, and scallion roll, I filled them in on an event I attended recently. Between fits of giggles and demands to see video evidence, one of them blurted, "Your friends have weird names," and then proceeded to list two or three I'd just mentioned. She wasn't being at all judgmental, just expressing her honest perspective: my friends' names are ones that don't categorize neatly for her. 

It's not the first time a friend with a common European name has said exactly that. But it always reminds me of two things. First, as a Baha'i, I've always been surrounded by people from many different backgrounds. And second, even within my own overlapping circles, people can go years without ever meeting someone whose culture is distinct from their own. 

I think, depending on a person's experiences, it's easy to think of names following certain protocols. That's even more true in languages where traditional names take masculine and feminine forms. Trying to apply the standards of one culture to the names in another culture is where the "weirdness" comes into play. It's something that worries me a bit about the book. Will people be able to get past the unfamiliar names? Or will they be too intimidated to see the fullness of the story?

Let's have some fun with this. When I hear Reza or Nima, I expect to meet men, but Taeko and Chiho? I expect to see women. Sanam is one of my favorite feisty little girls, but in a subtle twist, my friend Saman is a guy. Most of my friends named Leila pronounce it Laila, but one friend's daughter, Laila, sounds like Lila, and another friend's daughter, Lila, sounds like Leela. My cousin Alia sounds like Aleea, but my friend Aliea sounds like Ali-a. A friend's dog, Ruairidh, sounds like my cousin Rory. My friend Jiaer, a girl, sounds like a jar, the same way a friend's son, Cash, sounds like ... cash. My cousin Nathanael sounds like Nathaniel, but an acquaintance named Israel is Is-rye-el. These days, James could be a man or a woman, and Ashley shifted from a male name to a female one years ago.

Most of the men named John that I know say, "it's a family name," but at some point in time, the first John in their family was probably named after either John the Baptist or the apostle John, who is presumed to have written the gospel bearing the same name. In a similar way, every Tahirih I know can trace her name back to the mid-19th century Persian feminist and poet who was executed for following The Bab. And every woman named Lua I know is in some way named after the early American Baha'i, Lua Getsinger, an intrepid heroine whose nickname was a shortening of Louise Aurora. My friend Eric might think his name is normal, but at some point, a Viking had to explain his name to a Scot. I'll skip the phonetic spellings except to say that no one named Shyanne would have that name if the Cheyenne hadn't made their home on the Plains.

To me, a name is the same as a face. Each one is unique (even if a name is shared, it's still unique when attached to a person). Weird? Only if you think you're normal.