Thursday, December 1, 2011

Name Post: The Question of Belonging

Headscarf mannequins.

In the summer of 2010, the New York Times published an article about the reception of Turkish soap operas in the Arab World (

What the Turkish entertainment industry did, which was so genius from a marketing perspective, was create common (dare I say cliché?) story lines acted out by Muslim characters. (In other words, the characters have scandalous affairs and drink alcohol openly, but they also celebrate Ramadan and have arranged marriages). These shows have had tremendous success internationally (last year 85 million viewers from Syria to Morocco watched the season finale of the popular soap, Noor).

When these shows are on, most Moroccans remain glued to their TV screens. A friend who has been living here for a while told me that when a beloved Turkish soap opera character died, tons of businesses and offices closed in Rabat, mourning this fictional character’s life. There are now apparently strict laws about how long a season of one of these soaps can be on for, lest people get too attached to the characters.

Unsurprisingly, the names of these Turkish soap opera stars have taken off in Morocco. Noor and Mohannad (the two leads of the popular show “Gumus”) are remarkably popular names here, despite the fact that the names themselves are “imports.”

Over the past week I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with a few friends of friends who shared their opinions on Moroccan names over coffee (and, okay, maybe a Moroccan pastry…or four). I’ve come across a dramatic variety of opinions on the Moroccan government’s regulation of names. What’s become clear in all of these conversations, however, is that in Morocco, names are at the heart of something that I’m calling the question of belonging.

In almost all societies, names help to place people. When you’re in the U.S. and you hear a name like “Mei Zhang”, you would probably assume that this person is of Chinese origin or has relatives of Chinese origin. When you hear a name like “Jesus Lopez”, you would probably assume that this person is Hispanic or has relatives who are Hispanic. (Obviously, this can be a dangerous business because there's a good chance Mei Zhang is not Chinese and Jesus Lopez is not Hispanic). The same need we seem to have to place people is also what might cause discomfort when families wonder about names that cross cultures. For example, is it “okay” or “ethical” for an American family of a European background to use the popular Indian boys name “Akash” for their son if they have no connection to India?

The Moroccan government has decided that it IS important to be able to place people based on names. And, as I’ve discussed previously, they are taking the liberty to define what a “Moroccan name” is. I’m fascinated in how these rules have changed over time, however. It is interesting to me that the "imported" names of Turkish soap opera characters are now permitted in Morocco (perhaps an indication by the government that these Turkish soaps have indeed become a part of Moroccan lives and therefore, part of a “Moroccan identity”), but Amazigh (Berber) names have not been included. Even some Hebrew names have exceptions made for them, and many “western names” have also become popular (the name “Ryan/Rayan”, for example, is common). By controlling the names that people can use for the next generation of Moroccan citizens, essentially, the government is controlling just what they consider a Moroccan identity to look like in the future (and perhaps, more tellingly, what is excluded from this identity).

Different societies handle this question of belonging differently. In Bali, names reflect not belonging to that island in particular, or even belonging to the country of Indonesia, but to a family. When a child is called “Wayan” or “Ketut” or “Komang”, their position in relationship to the rest of their family becomes evident. In India, using popular names of gods and goddesses is a way for names to reflect religious beliefs and show belonging to a Hindu community (and often caste). In Morocco, because names are regulated by the government, they reflect belonging to a specific country. However, it's becoming clearer and clearer, that with this comes the (flawed) assumption that people who belong to this country have a specific and shared ethnic background, religion and language.

One new friend told me the other day, "you know, names aren’t really at all related to the person who has the name, they’re related to the person who chooses it.” I’m becoming increasingly interested in how we prioritize questions of belonging in the names we choose, and how countries, families, and parents are letting people know just what kind of belonging matters in the names they choose to pass on.

I also learned only yesterday that, similar to in Bali and India, there is traditionally a naming ceremony in Morocco (and in most other Muslim communities). Seven days after the baby’s birth the parents invite friends and family to a big party. After eating, a baby-washing ceremony takes place, Koran verses are read, prayers are made, and then a sheep is slaughtered. It is thought that the sheep is slaughtered in order to give the baby a name. It is at this moment that the baby’s name is officially announced.

The number of sheep that are slaughtered depends on the wealth of the family, but it’s required that at least one is slaughtered for each name. The friend who told me about this joked that if one kid teases another about his name, he can respond, “It’s not a bad name! My father slaughtered TWO sheep for this name.”

In other words, he knows he belongs.


  1. I have already gotten several "orders" for scarves from people who have seen this photo.