My wife and I are having a bit of a dispute at the moment over what name to give to our first child, to be born next March. We don't know its gender yet, so I'd go for something like Farzad or Homayoon for a boy and Farzaneh or Azadeh in case of a girl. But, alas, she won't hear of it because in her words these names "sound awkward"-;now, Jesus!-;and we've got to choose more "melodious and pretty" ones like Parvaneh, Sahel, Mehrdad, ...
No accounting for tastes, of course, but let's see then: what principles should be applied in choosing names?
In my ever so humble opinion, the most important aspect of a name is its meaning, and that's why names used for designating animals, plants and objects (however cute or beautiful they may be) are not among my favourites. I am glad my simple-natured parents named me Ali (lofty, noble). Not out of any abstract love for the Shiite saint, though—I'm anything but religious—but just because it's a splendid name with a lovely meaning that has always given me pride and self-confidence.
Many people in countries like Iran name their children on a purely religious basis and without giving a moment's thought to its meaning or historical implications. A very common example is Fatemeh (Muhammad's daughter): Take a trip to any Shiite town in this country and you'll see that nearly half the female population is called that name. Now what does Fatemeh mean exactly? In case you didn't know, it's something like ‘weaned before time’. Hardly a feather in anyone's cap, especially at a time when everyone—form doctors at the UNICEF and the World Health Organization down to presenters of TV family programmes and talk shows—is going on and on about the virtues of breast feeding. Well I suppose the bearded, pious father of a Fatemeh will argue that the name actually means ‘weaned (or separated) from all evil’—and there have even been attempts at modernisation (Fatima is becoming popular)—but obviously straws are being clutched in both cases.
A few years ago, a major newspaper in Tehran published a letter from a man who had filed numerous requests with the registry office to have his daughter's name changed and had been rejected on every occasion. He had tried all administrative and legal mechanisms, every conceivable loophole in the law, but to no avail whatsoever. The letter said:
Coming from a religious background, we chose the name Omm-ol-Banin (mother of Abbas, a Karbala war hero) for our only daughter and we were very proud of that. But now I am ready to give my life to have that name changed because classmates and kids in the neighbourhood are calling the girl “Ommol” (fuddy-duddy): Come here, Ommol! Where are you going, Ommol? ...
Amused? Naturally. But the horror of it is that the hapless child was so devastated by these taunts that she was not going to school anymore.
Indeed, it takes some ill-advised, excessive religious fervour plus a good deal of ignorance to put that sort of name on a child:
For one thing, Omm-ol-Banin means ‘mother of boys’; it's not a name, rather it is the nickname given to one of Ali's wives whose children were all boys. It makes absolutely no sense to call a child Omm-ol-Banin, not least because she isn't a mother yet, and even when she becomes one, her offspring may not be an exclusively male lot.
And within the same logic of fanaticism, the government is now refusing to register names like Kourosh (Cyrus), Daryoush (Darius), etc on the grounds that they are too un-Islamic!!
It's no secret that the people running this country simply can't resist poking their noses into every corner of our lives—we've got used to it. But that a nation should be forced to reject its own history and culture—and in such a petty, ridiculous fashion—defies both belief and common sense.
Historical and cultural matters are also important. Just as Fatemeh is a popular choice among Shiites, names like Ayesha, Khadija and Hafsa are very common in Sunni (mostly Arab) countries, where people have got this age-old tradition of naming girls after the wives of prophet Muhammad. Moreover, things like Zayed and Yazid (ie, one who brings abundance and prosperity) are perfectly decent names per se—Zayed is the name of the president of the UAE and there is a popular TV presenter on the MBC network called Yazid. Now who would even think of naming a boy Zayed or Yazid in a place like Iran? The first one will draw a good laugh as it means ‘useless’ or ‘superfluous’ in modern Persian. As for the second, I think you agree that calling anyone Yazid would be nothing short of sacrilege in these parts.
Ideally a person's name ought to fit their social status, appearance and even physical characteristics. ‘Shahpour’, ‘Khosrow’, ‘Dara’ and the like are most appropriate for kings, princes and rich kids. For a very ugly person, names such as Ziba, Parichehr, and Golrokh are best avoided. Recently a friend of mine chose the name Rostam (the mythical hero in Shah Nameh) for his baby son, but later changed his mind. But why? I wondered. “Well, just in case the child turns out to be a frail, diminutive one, with a name like that he may end up becoming the laughing stock of the entire school or district!” said the far-sighted new daddy.
While it's only too natural for a brutal, sadistic dictator to be called Saddam (harmful, destructive), I wonder what to say about the British commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia in the early 1990's, General Michael Coward. If names are supposed to bring pride and confidence, then Coward isn't the most glorious appellation for a person in the noble military calling. Without wishing to be unkind to the worthy general, just think what he wouldn't give to have his name changed?!
So, a penny for your thoughts here: what criteria, if any, should be applied in selecting names? How much should we allow our choices to be influenced by cultural, historical and religious considerations? Is the meaning issue all that important?